Content warning: discussion of suicidal thoughts and actions.
Audra McDonald is one of the greatest performers of our time. Full stop.
A venerated actress, spellbinding singer, and consummate performer, McDonald is a six-time Tony Award winner, the most of any individual, and the only person to earn the coveted trophy in all four acting categories. To say nothing of her television and film roles and her resistance-ready Twitter account, this is a woman with some serious talent.
But like many great performers, McDonald’s path to success wasn’t easy.
The Broadway great joined Alec Baldwin on his podcast, “Here’s The Thing,” to talk about her rise to fame and the detour that almost ended it all.
McDonald grew up in Fresno, California, and started college at Juilliard, a world-renowned performing arts school, in New York in 1988. She chose to study classical music and operatic singing, hoping to also take classes in dance and drama too, but soon learned her intense course of study wouldn’t allow for it.
“I felt lost, completely lost,” she told Baldwin.
Her lack of fulfillment coupled with the pressure of being the young woman from her hometown who was supposed to “make it” weighed heavily on her. One night, it was all too much.
In the winter of her third year, McDonald slit her wrists. She quickly called the Student Affairs Director, who helped get her to Gracie Square Hospital, a psychiatric facility in the city. She noticed a few other Juilliard students there too.
“I was [at the hospital] for a month,” she said. “They evaluated me and said, ‘You’re not going any time soon.'”
McDonald took a year off school to recuperate and later took on a role in “The Secret Garden.” She returned to Juilliard and graduated in 1993. The rest, as they say, is history … and awards from the president.
McDonald’s story reminds us depression is a monster that can be tamed, but not one that easily goes away.
Baldwin seemed surprised to learn of McDonald’s depression, given the strength and confidence she has onstage. She credits that experience and her passion for art for helping her find joy and strength in dark moments.
“I realized I’m someone who suffers from depression but I learned in the years: A. how to deal with it, B. to find my joy, and C. to realize that like alcoholism, it’s something you wake up every day and you say, ‘Yeah that’s still something I have to deal with.'”
That’s why she’s so transparent about her experience with suicide and living with mental illness.
She speaks freely about that time now, knowing it could save someone else’s life. “I’m open about it because I think I’m a case of ‘it gets better,'” she said.
In a fitting epilogue, Gracie Square Hospital stands right next to the OB-GYN practice McDonald attended while pregnant with her now-10-month-old daughter. The full-circle moment wasn’t lost on her.
“Every time I passed it, there was a part of me just, you know, waddling down the street pregnant as can be some 29 years later. I felt such relief and joy and a sense of ‘Yes, I get the big picture now.'”
Depression, suicidal ideation, and other mental health concerns can affect anyone, at any time. But there is hope.
If you or someone you care about is having a difficult time, it’s OK to ask for help from a trusted friend, teacher, counselor, or your doctor. In an emergency, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255. There is help. There is hope.