26 Jun 2018

John Moe: tackling depression one conversation at a time

From Afternoons, 3:08 pm on 26 June 2018

Mental health is a little less intimidating to talk about if you can have a few laughs along the way, says the host of the interview podcast The Hilarious World of Depression.

John Moe

John Moe Photo: Shuttersmack LLC

John Moe is an American comedian and radio personality who uses humour to shine a light on an issue too often left in the shadows.

While his job can be heavy, Moe tells Jesse Mulligan that every honest conversation on the podcast is a positive step.

Depression can be really hard to describe and really hard to understand if you haven't experienced it, Moe says, but even a person who doesn't struggle with it themselves will certainly have someone in their life who does.

Comedians Maria Bamford, Margaret Cho, TV personality Dick Cavett and musician Jeff Tweedy are some of the guests who've opened up about their own struggles on the podcast, simply "to be a part of something healthy and good", Moe says.

"It's this thing where if you don't talk about it, it gets worse and if you do talk about it, it generally gets better  – and yet people choose not to talk about it."

American comedian Maria Bamford in her 2017 Netflix comedy special 'Old Baby'

American comedian Maria Bamford in her 2017 Netflix comedy special 'Old Baby' Photo: YouTube Screenshot

Comedians  – who often articulate things that people are feeling but haven't said out loud or known others also felt – are well-suited to tackling something as "colourless and formless" as depression, he says.

"A comedian's job is to phrase something so it cuts through the fog a little bit and connects with people and lets them know they're not alone thinking these thoughts. That's where the laugh comes from, it's a laugh of relief."

Yet Moe says it's people like professional athletes ("pillars of traditional muscular strength") talking about depression that will really break down stigma.

"A comedian can come on my show and bare his or her soul  – open up about this kind of thing – and it makes them a more relatable person, it certainly doesn't harm their career … Athletes have nothing to gain from opening up about this kind of thing, but they feel a need to do it just as citizens of the world."

American musical duo Daryl Hall and John Oates in 2008

American musical duo Daryl Hall and John Oates in 2008 Photo: Gary Harris / CC BY-SA 2.0

Most people who experience depression also experience anxiety, Moe says – he calls them the 'Hall & Oates' of mental illness.

"Depression is fear of the past and anxiety is fear of the future, they go together really well."

Personally, he thinks 'Oates' is depression and 'Hall' is anxiety: "Other people may disagree."

In Moe's own case, depression "hit him like a truck" around puberty.

None of the educational pamphlets on bodily changes covered "a screaming mind" and feelings of being trapped and out of control, he says.

Many people have told Moe that their mental health troubles around the same age.

The timeline is usually pretty consistent, he says.

A younger John Moe

A younger John Moe Photo: John Moe / Facebook

"The first real crash comes around puberty, there's another crash that might get more serious in the late teens, early 20s, and then there's a long 'bargaining phase' where you're trying to see how much you can do on your own, how much you need professional help, and what works for you individually.

'People talk about 'I tried this type of therapy, that didn't work, but this type of therapy did', 'These meds were a disaster, these meds worked for a while then they stopped. Everybody kind of has their own story about how they've coped with it and the journey that they've been on."

Moe's own family used humour to communicate what was too difficult to talk about directly, he says.

After his brother died by suicide a couple of years ago, he, his mother and two sisters went to scatter his ashes on the Washington coast where they'd grown up.

"My older sister got the box of ashes out of the car to walk down to the boat. And for some reason – I still don't know why – my mum said 'Oh, is it heavy?'

"And my sister just sort of stopped because she knew what she had to say.

"She said, 'Well, he ain't heavy … he's my brother.'

"We were all just as devastated as we otherwise would be, but in my family humour was a way that we kind of communicated with each other. We couldn't always talk to each other very easily, but we could appreciate a good joke."

Anthony Bourdain in 2017

Anthony Bourdain in 2017 Photo: Getty Images / AFP

Many people were struck hard by the recent suicide of celebrity chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain because he was someone "seemingly grabbing life by the horns and really fully living it", Moe says.

Several performers have told him how taxing intense amounts of travel – such as Bourdain did – can be on your mental health - and that they commit to strict routines to maintain their own.

Kurt Cobain performing with Nirvana at Sony Music Studios in November 1993 for the television series 'MTV Unplugged'

Kurt Cobain performing with Nirvana at Sony Music Studios in November 1993 for the television series 'MTV Unplugged' Photo: Screen capture

For him, the death of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain in 1994 was a blow.

"I grew up in Seattle, and I was a year younger than Kurt Cobain when he died. I'm still not over it.

"I never met him but the things he created spoke to me so deeply that it really shook me."

Moe says he's reluctant to give advice on treatment for depression as he's not medically trained.

So what would he say to a friend who is struggling?

"Make an appointment and keep the appointment. Both of those are huge steps to take and they can really make a big difference."

And if you don't feel able to make an appointment yourself, call a friend.

"Just say 'Hey, I can't even bring myself to make a phone call about this. Can you help me out?' A lot of people will."

A recent episode of The Hilarious World of Depression has practical advice about taking the first step to ask for help, but it's pretty American-specific in terms of healthcare, Moe says.

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Afternoons

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)