What is low-grade depression?

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Aug 14, 2020

What is low-grade depression?

Michelle Obama recently opened up about experiencing ‘low-grade depression’ on her podcast, ‘The Michelle Obama Podcast’. But what is 'low-grade depression' and how can it be managed?

When Michelle Obama spoke about experiencing ‘low-grade depression' during the second episode of her podcast, ‘The Michelle Obama Podcast’, she sparked a conversation about the mental health spectrum, as well as the ways that events and situations can take a toll on our wellbeing.

During the episode, Michelle spoke candidly about how the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and the state of politics all contributed to a low period in her mental health.

"I'm waking up in the middle of the night because I'm worrying about something or there's a heaviness,” Michelle said, in conversation with US journalist Michele Norris.

"These are not, they are not fulfilling times, spiritually," she continued. "I know that I am dealing with some form of low-grade depression.

"Not just because of the quarantine, but because of the racial strife, and just seeing this administration, watching the hypocrisy of it, day in and day out, is dispiriting."

With everything that’s going on at the moment, it’s no surprise that Michelle’s words struck a chord with many of her listeners. As we live through unprecedented times, many of us will notice how current events are affecting our mental health – in fact, according to the Mental Health Foundation, 62% of UK adults reported feeling anxious or worried in the first wave of lockdown.

But in particular, the phrase ‘low-grade depression’ has been garnering attention, perhaps for the way that it perfectly captures a feeling that a lot of us have experienced over recent months.

So what exactly did Michelle mean by ‘low-grade depression’? According to counsellor Josh MacNab, the experience that she describes as ‘low-grade depression’ shares similarities with dysthymia, which refers to persistent, mild depression.

As he notes, the symptoms of dysthymia include:

  • Poor appetite
  • Insomnia
  • Low energy/feeling fatigued
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor concentration/indecisiveness
  • Hopelessness

woman sat on sofa

62% of UK adults reported feeling anxious or worried in the first wave of lockdown

“The difference is between dysthymia and major depressive disorder is that dysthymia is diagnosed after a prolonged period of symptoms – it’s an arm of persistent depressive disorder,” Josh explains.

And as with other mental health problems, dysthymia can be triggered by events taking place in our lives.

“The onset of depression can be caused by past or current traumatic experiences,” Josh adds. “And currently what we’re experiencing is a global traumatic experience in terms of the pandemic and its impact on our daily lives. The routines and reliable daily schedules we lived have been disrupted. Our external structures have been replaced with uncertainty about our world. With the physical distancing, it brings a period of adaptation.”

All this in mind, Josh points out that individuals have to have two years’ of symptoms before it is officially diagnosed – something which he notes can lead people to see their experiences as a “character flaw” rather than a mental health problem.

“At this current time, feeling sad, anxious, angry, pessimistic are all very normal and valid feelings,” says Josh. “Knowing when feelings of hopelessness, listlessness – and other symptoms, such as those described above – become chronic and impact you to an unhealthy level is important to acknowledge, so that you can get the help you need.”

If your mood is impacting your relationships and your daily life, and if you find that you are unable to enjoy happy occasions, Josh recommends visiting your GP or considering talking therapy. For Michelle, “schedule is key” to managing her mental health.

But if this is something that you are experiencing, know that whichever route you go down – be that with formal therapy or with tuning into your holistic needs – know that taking the time to examine your thoughts and feelings can often be the first step to better mental health.

And, hey, if the former First Lady of the United States of America can admit to struggling every now and then, it’s more than fair to say that the rest of us can cut ourselves some slack and do the same.

Hero image: EPGEuroPhotoGraphics /

Join 100,000+ subscribers

Stay in the loop with everything Happiful

We care about your data, read our privacy policy
Our Vision

We’re on a mission to create a healthier, happier, more sustainable society.