A Fresh Take on Depression

The Rubin Museum of Art’s Brainwave talk on depression last Friday night left the audience upbeat and, more than anything, captivated by the courageous and hilarious discussion of depression between author and comedian Jacqueline Novak and psychologist Douglas Mennin, Ph.D.


Jacqueline Novak (left), Douglas Mennin, Ph.D. (right). Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum.

Novak began the conversation by explaining a unique way to weep in public: pretend to sneeze and throw yourself forward to allow your tears to drop onto the floor without anyone noticing you are crying. [Most strikingly, neither she nor Mennin criticized such an action as weak or embarrassing.] The advice was a perfect lead-in to the night’s discussion on Novak’s book How to Weep in Public: Feeble Offerings from One Depressive to Another.

Novak is an author who does not expect her readers to follow a regimen to treat their depression. In fact, she herself becomes easily overwhelmed by self-help books, and even feels she fails the authors when she does not follow their given advice. Instead of a regimen, she said she tries to understand and relate to her readers on a deeply personal level.

In general, her views on treating depression seemed to eschew traditional methods of therapy and instead focus on embracing one’s feelings and, in her own case, embracing certain aspects as strengths rather than weaknesses. For example, Novak said that the anxiety she feels on stage may help her perform better because she readily accepts the way she feels. She believes that this outlook enables her to help others.

Mennin, head of the Regulation of Emotion in Anxiety and Depression (READ) Lab at Hunter College, takes a markedly different approach on treating depression. In his practice as a psychologist, Mennin uses scientifically-grounded treatment methods to alter and eliminate feelings, though he was receptive to Novak’s first-hand experiences. He stated that there is a “true wisdom” in feeling the depression–that the solution can indeed be within the experience of feeling emotions. In response to Novak’s ability to accept aspects of her depression and anxiety as strengths, he said that perspective is very important; the parasympathetic nervous system’s reaction to stress and anxiety can be largely detrimental when it is not needed for survival, but also can be a great motivator. (The parasympathetic nervous system is one of the three divisions of the central nervous system responsible for stimulation in the fight-or-flight response and often activates in response to stress and anxiety.)

Mennin’s research at READ Lab focuses on how emotions impact anxiety and depression and, specifically, how to regulate them. “[D]espite periodic calls for attention, only relatively recently has the field of clinical psychology begun to systematically incorporate the basic science of emotions into its various frameworks for psychopathology and psychotherapeutic intervention,” explains his lab website. In his research, Mennin studies Emotion Regulation Therapy (ERT), which, as stated on his website dedicated to the therapy, is “a recently developed and preliminary supported manualized treatment for generalized anxiety disorder that integrates components of cognitive-behavioral, acceptance, dialectical, mindfulness-based, and experiential, emotional-focused, treatments.”

As the conversation continued, Novak further challenged the traditional treatment of depression by stating that some of her therapists have been unhelpful because not every therapist can be a good fit for every patient and vice versa. Mennin agreed, and said he found Novak’s perspective of what can be a stale relationship between therapist and patient refreshing.

The event painted depression as a multifarious problem with largely varied experiences that resists a strict definition. It was raw and honest, a remarkably lighthearted discussion on a serious topic, which addressed complex emotions and individual experiences. It was also an important reminder of the importance to battle the stigma of depression and of personalized medicine.

Check out more programs as part of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave series and stay tuned for coverage of future Brainwave events!

For more information on depression, visit our BrainWeb page.

– Amanda Bastone

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