I have always been interested in human feelings. What makes us sad, happy, angry, fearful, or content? What determines our state of mind? Why do we sometimes feel well and other times we feel miserable? Life so clearly shows us that a variety of different factors influence people’s psychological and emotional well-being. Yet, every so often, the social environment determines our mental health. Once the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the entire world, anxiety, fear, insecurity and loneliness easily found their way inside many of our homes. The social system’s alteration leads us to a different pulse of our lives, a new rhythm and a lot of new challenges.
An interview with Valerie Cordero, Co-Executive Director at Families for Depression Awareness, U.S.A.
“We are living in a different world today and it can feel very overwhelming.”
Choose a day from your life before the pandemic and describe it!
Valerie Cordero: Well, a typical day would be getting up in the morning
Valerie Cordero: Somewhere, between 5. 45 a.m. and 6.00 a.m.
Valerie Cordero: I would get up and help my son to get ready for school (he is nine years old), and our daughter for her grandparents’ house (she is only two). After taking them where they used to be every morning, I would go to my office and be there until school lets out.
Was your life more or less linear, smooth, with not many changes along the road?
Valerie Cordero: Yes, it was. When I got home, I would make dinner and, at some point, my husband would come back from either a music gig or his side job. Once everyone was home, we would eat and later go to bed. That was an average day in our life up until about March of this year.
Our usual pace was unexpectedly interrupted by a pandemic that turned everyone’s life into something that we cannot name yet. How is everything now?
Valerie Cordero: Oh my goodness, so much has changed. I’m working from home; my son continued the school year completely virtually. Most of my husband’s music jobs were put on hold, so he repainted the entire outside of our house, changed bathroom fixtures, and he just did a lot of home projects to fill up his time until the businesses were allowed to open.
Do you feel overwhelmed?
Valerie Cordero: It’s overwhelming to have so much lack of structure. During the summer months, we would always have my son engaged in activities, and we would arrange our schedules around him. It’s hard to maintain discipline, minimize screen time for him, and even for the two-year-old. In addition to everything going on with the pandemic, racial tensions in America have been high.
“Our biggest challenge is just making sure that we reach all of the new people who are being affected by depression or other mental health conditions.”
The real reason that led us to this conversation was our concern that the number of depressed people would rise a lot, because of the pandemic and all its repercussions. I would have liked to talk about music, Valerie, because I know how much you love it. However, we will talk more about how COVID-19 has changed our lives. We will talk about FFDA, a nonprofit organization that supports families affected by depression or bipolar disorder, which has been active for almost two decades. You joined the organization in 2010. Is it difficult these days to accomplish your mission?
Valerie Cordero: We have not had to lay anybody off, but we have had to be creative with how we deliver some of our programming. We know that more people are at risk for developing depression because of the isolation, economic uncertainty and stress of quarantining, all associated with this pandemic. It is, therefore, imperative for us to reach families with actionable advice about supporting a loved one’s mental wellness.
We are fortunate to have dedicated board members, volunteers and staff. Everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances. Like many other nonprofits, we are waiting to see what the financial repercussions of coronavirus will be for our organization. Our biggest challenge is just making sure that we reach all of the new people who are being affected by depression or other mental health conditions. To accomplish this, we continue to use all of the earned media and outreach opportunities that we have from other nonprofit partners to our social media channels and website.
Most of the organization’s programs are educational. Does FFDA provide medical services, as well?
Valerie Cordero: We do not provide therapy or medical services. People can access our website where there are free webinars, screening tests, web tools and educational information. We also have some amazing publications that most people can access for free through our programming; they can also purchase them in bulk if necessary.
We are an organization that focuses on the family.
How relevant are those tests that you provide for someone’s diagnosis?
Valerie Cordero: The depression and bipolar tests are based on the PHQ-9 (Patient Health Questionnaire), and the M D. Q. (Mood Disorder Questionnaire). They are similar to tests that you would get if you were going to the doctor’s office to be screened for a mood disorder. You can also fill them out on behalf of someone else. We encourage people to print out the results and take them to a medical professional to get a full evaluation.
How could people living with depression manage their symptoms? What is your suggestion for them?
Valerie Cordero: I do encourage people to consult a mental health professional for specific medical advice. In general, mild depression can be managed with lifestyle changes and talk therapy. For people diagnosed with moderate to severe depression, our clinical advisory board believes that a combination of medication and therapy is often effective. Regardless of the severity, it is always a good idea to pay attention to sleep hygiene, eating well, and exercising. Another great tool is mindfulness-based stress reduction.
All of those are, of course, common sense suggestions, but so important to reaffirm. How significant is it to have family support?
Valerie Cordero: We are an organization that focuses on the family. We believe that when the family members get access to psychoeducation, learn about the diagnosis and how they can play an active role in supporting their loved ones, the health outcomes of the person with depression or bipolar disorder can be positively impacted. We encourage families to develop healthy communication strategies and talk to their loved ones about wellness goals, especially if the person is in a good place. That’s the time to ask them: “Listen, if you start to feel worse, or if you become a risk to yourself or others, what would you like us to do? Who is your doctor? Who should we call if you need to be hospitalized? Which hospital would you prefer?” It is harder to have those conversations if the family member is experiencing a depressive or manic episode.
“You wait patiently, continue to care for yourself, and hope they get to the point where they are ready to change.”
Some people do not recognize the gravity of their condition, or they are simply not able to accept it. What should we do in this situation?
Valerie Cordero: As much as we may want to, you can’t force anyone to change or see the world the way you do—nor should you try. It can lead to fractures in trust and in the relationship. If you have openly expressed your concerns for a loved one and they either do not believe there’s a problem or they are not ready to take action about it, all you can do is love them and wait until they are ready.
What you are telling me is that a lot of the responsibility lies on the family’s shoulders.
Valerie Cordero: The best thing family members can do at that point is to set and enforce their boundaries, practice self-care, and be prepared to offer help when and if their loved one asks for it. The exception is, of course, if the person is actively suicidal or a danger to others. In all other cases, you wait patiently, continue to care for yourself and hope they get to the point where they are ready to change.
“Stigma is a big issue all over the world. It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what mental health conditions are. Mental health conditions are medical conditions. You wouldn’t tell somebody with cancer: < You’re lazy. Get off the couch>. However, we say that to people with depression all the time. “
How do we fight stigma?
Valerie Cordero: The two parts about fighting stigma are: educating yourself, and sharing the information with the others. Storytelling is a powerful tool in fighting stigma. Depression and bipolar disorder do not discriminate by gender, race, or class. The more we talk about it publicly, the less stigma will be.
People are afraid that they could lose their jobs, the trust of their peers.
Valerie Cordero: The fear of being stigmatized is a valid concern that people have. They don’t want to be treated as if they are inferior. They don’t want to have opportunities taken away from them because they have a mental health diagnosis. The fear is valid because discrimination does happen.
People with more severe mental health diagnoses may have specific limitations with what they could do, but most people could get treatment for mild depression or bipolar disorder, and they could live the life they want.
“October 15th, this year, will be a special night.”
Speaking about hope, I know that last year this time, you were preparing for your annual event, “The Evening of Hope and Discovery.” Hope and discovery, two powerful and meaningful concepts; a wholehearted call.
Valerie Cordero: This year we are going to deliver that hope and discovery through a virtual platform. It will be wonderful! There will be a series of events leading up to the evening of Thursday, October the 15th at 7 PM ET.
Hey world, save the date!
Valerie Cordero: Tickets are on sale now! The event will feature an online auction, video messages, and mini-breakout groups. We will celebrate the work that we do as an organization, and the families we represent. It will be a fantastic night. We have an excellent team working on it, making sure that we find a way to engage with one another and still raise money to support our operations for the next coming year. Since we are a nonprofit, we depend on donations. If there are people who believe in our mission, believe in the work that we do, and want to support our efforts, then we’re asking them to buy tickets to bid on auction items.
“My uncle died by suicide when I was four.”
Do you have in mind a specific program to accomplish with the money raised this evening?
Valerie Cordero: Almost everything we do is free to the public whom we serve; to make that possible, the money raised at the event goes to our general operating support. All of our programs are conceived to help the families who struggle, overcome, and stick together, supporting each other through a mental health diagnosis. They are also designed as a form of upstream suicide prevention. My uncle died by suicide when I was four. Though I don’t remember much about him, that event reverberated throughout my family in the years after. I know how important it is for families to be involved in suicide prevention.
“I always want to leave people with a message of hope.”
What’s your message for our readers?
My general message would be that depression and bipolar disorder are treatable medical conditions and that it is possible to achieve one’s own definition of wellness with professional and family support. I always want to leave people with a message of hope.
I intuited Valerie Cordero, from our first phone conversation, as a compassionate woman, distinguished and open-minded. I learned that she was raised in a small college town in western Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Mountains, called Williamstown. Her father was a professor of history for decades, and she grew up and stayed there until she went to Atlanta for her undergraduate school, becoming a student at Spelman College. This is a historically Black school and a global leader in the education of women of African descent. She continued her professional training at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she ultimately earned a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. She lived in Cuba for a while, and then she had a career shift into nonprofit work. She started working at Families for Depression Awareness organization in 2010. Since 2016, she has been a co-executive director at this organization.
“I learned a lot as an ethnomusicologist and some of that I transferred into my work.”
How did you discover the passion for music?
Valerie Cordero: It has always been a passion of mine. I have been singing all of my life, and I became interested in ethnomusicology when a professor gave us a presentation at Spelman College about music and culture. It was fascinating to discover how understanding people’s music lets you know what they eat, where they sleep, what the temperature is like in the places they lived, where they moved, and so on. You can not understand music until you know all of those elements around it.
How might your studies about music and culture help your work at Families for Depression Awareness?
Valerie Cordero: Well, music has many therapeutic qualities. I learned a lot as an ethnomusicologist, and some of that I transferred into my work. As I mentioned before, understanding everything around a particular person helps you know them better. If you are looking at somebody who has depression or a bipolar disorder, you also have to understand that person’s family structure. You need to be aware of everything that is going on in someone’s life to provide help accurately. I see parallels between music and my work today. As part of my research, I interviewed people frequently. When we speak to families about how they should interact with their loved ones, we tell them to listen actively, repeating back what they are saying to make sure that they correctly understood, making eye contact, listening more than talking.
Did you think about going back to music?
Valerie Cordero: I am still involved in music. I sometimes perform with my husband. He is a percussionist. I also sang with my church choir, when we were still able to attend services.
This global epidemic has sheltered all the world in place. It leaves a large number of people filled with grief. Many of us lose family members, others lose their jobs, and consequently their incomes, their food, their housing, their safety, their peace. I would say this social distancing put us all not only in a new state of affairs but in an abnormal situation. There is an array of things that worry us, make us angry, impatient, there’s plenty of uncertainty which causes insecurity, fear, anxiety, and finally, even depression. But let’s do our best, fight the bad by being grateful for what we have, and help the ones who are not as lucky as we are. Save the date, and join us to the “The Evening of Hope and Discovery”.
Laura Bandila Goldberger