Shining a Light on Depression

Chiara de Blasio did a brave thing by showing the world her illness.

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Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio embraces his daughter Chiara as he talks to the media after voting, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 in the Park Slope neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York. His son Dante is at left. De Blasio is running against Republican candidate Joseph Lhota.
New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and his daughter Chiara.

It's easy to be cynical about the personal struggles of a celebrity – especially when that celebrity seems, to the rest of us, to have nothing with which to struggle. And that's why Chiara de Blasio's YouTube revelation that she has suffered from depression and substance abuse is so worth viewing and thinking about in an entirely new way.

Chiara de Blasio is the 19-year-old daughter of New York mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, and the timing of her acknowledgement is notable. We didn't know about her troubles during the campaign, which suggest she or her family might have thought voters wouldn't be too sympathetic. She says she has benefited from a wonderful therapist as well as a recovery center, and now seems to be doing fine.

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In her video, Chiara de Blasio looks nothing like most of us would imagine a depressed addict to look. But that's the point – and it's an important one. Said the younger de Blasio in her video:

I had depression, like clinical depression, for my entire adolescence. So that's been something I've always dealt with. It made it easier the more I drank and did drugs to share some common ground with people I wouldn't have. It didn't start out as a huge thing for me, but then it became a huge thing for me.

Things only got worse when she went to college, de Blasio said, since she hadn't prepared for the changes, mentally and emotionally. "Getting sober is always a positive thing and by no means is it easy, it's the hardest thing I've ever done, but it's so worth it," she said.

In the video, de Blasio looks so sunny, so optimistic, and just the picture of a young woman with an exciting new life as daughter of the new mayor of New York (and a member of one of the hippest-looking families in politics). But that's the tragedy of depression. People think you are doing just fine, but you're not. Meanwhile, people throw around the word "depressed" to mean they're disappointed their sports team just lost (if that were really true, I and my other fellow Buffalo natives would have been institutionalized long ago). Clinical depression is, as a sufferer once told me, like a cancer on the soul. It can't be fixed by taking someone out for a beer to "cheer them up." It's an illness, and it's not uncommon for those afflicted with it to abuse drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.

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The result is that people who are caught up in a sad and lonely combination of depression and substance abuse are viewed as either weak or criminals. That makes it even less politically popular to discuss these problems as what they are – health problems – and deal with them accordingly.

It's very upsetting that a young woman like Chiara de Blasio was in such pain, and it's encouraging to see she has taken the steps to help herself get well. Perhaps her admission will help others treat depression more seriously as a genuine illness.

It shouldn't take a "celebrity" patient to change public opinion, but in reality, that's been the case. There was a time, not all that long ago, when people wouldn't even utter the word "cancer" out loud. Now, we've had a number of members of Congress who have battled and survived cancer – and the attention paid to the disease has increased accordingly. Depression and substance abuse, too, need the same kind of attention. And the people who suffer from it should be treated with compassion, not derision. It was brave of Chiara de Blasio to tell her story. Let's hope it has an impact far beyond her own family.