In Depth

PBS: ‘Depression: Out of the Shadows’

PBS’ “Depression: Out of the Shadows” began to take root when director Larkin McPhee read a New Yorker article on the topic by Andrew Solomon, which was later turned into the book “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.”

A production of Ms. McPhee’s company, Twin Cities Public Television and WGBH in Boston, the 90-minute program ran under PBS’ “Take One Step” health initiative and examined the many forms of depression, as well as both new and old strategies for treating it. Laurie Donnelly and Phyllis Geller were executive producers for the program.

“Rigorous science helps to make this illness real, to medicalize it. This is a film that can help millions of people,” said Ms. McPhee, whose past credits include “Dying to Be Thin,” about eating disorders, for PBS’ “Nova.”

She said she was stunned to learn in her early research that, while there had been previous films on the topic—including HBO’s “Dead Blue: Surviving Depression”—there had been no sweeping, science-based program. “There really was a need for it,” she added.

Depression, she said, “comes in many forms and it manifests itself differently in all age groups.”

The moving personal stories told in the film ranged widely, from Mr. Solomon’s to that of top public relations executive Terrie Williams, a gang member, a young adult man who killed himself, a woman who first suffered depression late in life and a mother with postpartum depression.

Ms. McPhee, 48, found one of her subjects when attending her college reunion, and others through friends in Minneapolis where she lives, in addition to the usual routes. Only one potential subject wasn’t willing to share her story on-camera, she said.

Individual stories alternated seamlessly with the science, including an exploration of the difficulties in diagnosing young adults, and an examination of the efficacy of treatments from electroshock therapy to talk.

The program was designed to educate, Ms. McPhee said, but there needed to be a rhythm to keep viewers watching. “You give your viewers science, but then you’ve got to give them a break,” she said.

The program had immediate consequences, Ms. McPhee said, with one of the featured clinics inundated with calls from patients seeking help. “That was probably the most rewarding moment of all of it,” she said.