Getting professional help for depression

Most people we interviewed had gotten professional help at some point for symptoms of depression. Some began by seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor. For others a family doctor, obstetrician, or another medical specialist was the first professional they encountered. A few people began treatment at a hospital, juvenile treatment facility, or prison.

Regardless of what kind of contact with professionals came first, most people remember the act of getting formal help as a distinct moment in the overall trajectory of their depression experiences. This summary explores what it was like to first seek and get care from professionals – including experiences receiving a depression diagnosis. We have also included experiences of those who decided not to get professional help.

Reasons for seeking help

People’s stories about first getting help vary, but many include the realization that things will not simply get better on their own and that the status quo is no longer sustainable. As Shayne put it, “I think I just had to screw up a bunch and learn the hard way that I needed more help than I was willing to get.” Pete says it took him a long time to seek therapy for his depression because “In all honesty I am a very prideful person, so for a while I was too proud to admit…” needing help.

Joey says he finally went to the doctor for help when he realized he no longer had any idea what would make him feel good.
Interview Transcript

It was, it was different. Like it wasn’t just like I was bummed out or something. It was like, there was like, I didn’t know, I didn’t have like any ideas of what to do that would make me feel good. Like, at times in past it’s like, oh I could go hang out with my friends. Oh, I could like play this game or something, you know. I could go make some food or you know, talk to somebody or something. This was just like, there’s nothing, there’s, every idea that I thought of just sounded like the stupidest, dumbest thing in the world and yeah, you know. You wake up enough days in a row where every single idea seems like shit, it’s just hard to, I don’t know. That was why I went to go see somebody.

Like basically desperation was how I, you know, managed to make the phone call and then go there and spend the money and all that stuff. It was just like, there’s no way that you can, you know be like this. Like, it’s like you just, at some point you’re so hungry you have to go get food. Even if like you are busy or you don’t have time or you don’t have money or you don’t, nothing sounds good. It’s like, you have to eat and that was pretty much where I was at. It was like if I don’t do this, like I might not even be alive, you know in like, a years’ time. You know, like just thinking about like if I went that path for like another year it was like, kind of frightening. It was, I could not, it could not happen. And that was what made me do it.

DEP Joey
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 26

Background: Joey lives in an apartment in an artists’ building in an urban area near where he had gone to college. He works part time in retail stores and is a musician. He is White.

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Crystal was reluctant to get professional help because of cultural/familial stigma about mental illness but eventually did through her college in a way that was both confidential and affordable.
Interview Transcript

And then going into spring semester that’s when kind of the real traumatizing periods of high school came back. And I realized that you know, “Something is really wrong and I can’t so this on my own but I really don’t know who to talk to. And I don’t think I am brave enough to go seek help.” Because I was, because of how my family perceived, you know therapy and getting help and mental illness I didn’t, I thought I’d be shaming them if I went to go seek help and that is a dangerous mentality to get into because if you, if you allow other people to influence your thoughts like that then it’s just it’s not a very good situation and so I really struggled through that semester and then over the summer that’s when I officially started, I had, I just happened to be taking summer classes and so that’s when I was able to seek help through my institution. Because it was, you know, affordable and available to me through you know, school health care plan. So and confidentiality is you know greatly appreciated and everything so I was able to do that. And so to this day I still seek therapy from my institution and what’s nice about it is that you know my family for right now doesn’t need to know and I can try to help myself as I go through.

DEP Crystal
Profile Info
Age at interview: 20
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Crystal is an African American college student. She works campus jobs during the year and internships in the summers.

Click here to view Crystal's profile page

A number of people described specific events which catapulted them towards professional care, such as proximity to someone else’s actual or attempted suicide; crisis created by the death of a family member; pregnancy; or post-partum experiences of depression. Some realized they needed help when they began doing poorly in high school or college: Natasha, for example, says she was so shaken by failing a class after “never fail[ing] anything before” that she finally went to see a psychiatrist. For others, first visits to professionals were arranged by parents, teachers, or the foster care system. A couple of people sought help for another problem, such as self-harming or an eating disorder, and then began getting treatment for depression too. (For more, see ‘Depression and self-harming’ and ‘Depression and eating disorders’.)In addition to the “push” to seek help created by the realization that things are bad and getting worse, some people experienced a “pull” towards help. For many, that pull was loving encouragement from friends or family. For others it was wanting to excel at something they love, like the arts or school. (See ‘Building relationships that work when depressed’).

Knowing other people who suffered from depression made it much easier for Jason to realize he was also depressed and it was okay to seek help.
Interview Transcript

And because of these, you know, close I guess, people close to me who suffered from it, like I think I got more curious about it and I got more sympathetic towards it, and I also started to identify it some of, say, the symptoms, and you know, the features were present in my own life. So I think that was good for me, that I was, first of all, more conscious than I would be without them, and also I was relatively open to like, seeking help and, you know, being vulnerable and being, you know, open to seeking help.

Yeah.

Yeah, but it was also like, like I said. It was because of them that I got curious about it and I read up about it and so I know the symptoms and what it feels like. So when the same thing happened to me, I feel like, I wasn’t just like, I think, you know, say I blamed myself less. Usually when you’re feeling low and depressed you’re very like, it’s very much self-inflicted, self-blaming. And I think that gave me a perspective that, you know, made me feel more realistic and back to the point of being more open about it and seeking help.

DEP Jason
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 22

Background: Jason is from a large city in Asia, but is living in the U.S. while he completes his college education. He lives in a dormitory room and plans to return to his country of origin after graduation.

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First experiences with care

People recall their first encounters with professionals in very different ways. Some connected right away with a doctor, therapist, or counselor and felt an immediate sense of relief. Joey, for example, said “I lucked out. The doctor I had was very like person oriented, very specific to me.” Ryan described the first visit as being “finally able to open the flood gate.”

Other people found it hard to relate to or accept help from the first professionals they encountered. Jeremy says he felt the whole thing was “somewhat forced” since it was his parents’ idea that he see a psychologist in the first place. For Crystal, engagement with a school psychologist felt “extremely intrusive” in the beginning – like someone was “coming into my own personal stuff… and this is just way too much.” Several people said their first therapist “wasn’t a good fit” or was “awful,” or that the first professional they saw did not handle the question of medication well.

For Ryan, talking with a professional for the first time was a relief, but also hard because it brought up things he had never told anyone before.
Interview Transcript

Yeah. It was like, it was like I was having to talk about stuff that I had never told anybody about and so it was really hard at first obviously. Like it was relieving at the same time but it was kind of like, it was kind of like sweeping all that dirt out from under the rug I guess is the best way to put it.

Mhmm. Yeah.

A lot of stuff comes forward that even maybe you didn’t actually think about when you were going through it, you know.

Yeah.

But then you reflect on it and you’re like gosh [Laughter]. Yeah.

Mhmm. Mhmm.

But yeah. So it basically made a lot of, a lot of stuff apparent for me.

DEP Ryan
Profile Info
Age at interview: 19
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 13

Background: Ryan lives with his girlfriend and her family in a suburb but is looking to move. He works as a janitor. He is White.

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Jacob didn't know what to expect from therapy, and found he had to get used to all the individual attention he got when he went.
Interview Transcript

It was very nerve-wracking. I had, I had no idea what to expect. I had never been to any sort of counseling or therapy before and the, the word counselor or therapist especially had, you know, they have stigmas and I didn’t know at all what to expect and so I went in and it was a I think she was a, like an in-training therapist, so she was shadowed by a supervisor or something, but it was still one on one with me and her. And I wasn’t very good at, well I didn’t think I was going to be very good at talking to a person about this. Especially one on one. One on one encounters make me a little bit anxious just because there’s nobuffer, there’s no other people to take the attention off of me. And so it felt a lot like you know, therapist up here and me down here and she’s just asking me questions, trying to figure out what my problems are.

DEP Jacob
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Jacob is a software engineer at a large company. He lives with his girlfriend and a cat. He is White.

Click here to view Jacob's profile page

Many people noted that looking back, they wish they had gotten help sooner. In Meghan’s words, “I finally did reach out and get help and that was the best decision I ever made. Because I feel so much better now…. I should have done it way sooner.” Colin says “I waited far too long to actually seek any professional help, because I thought I’d feel judged or like it wasn’t bad enough… a lot of things could have been avoided had I just had someone to talk to sooner.”

Teddy says he could've avoided a lot of bad times if he had gotten help sooner.
Interview Transcript

The main thing I want to add is, if you first get depressed and you realize it, go seek help because if you let it continue on and on it’s going to get worse and it’s going to be harder to fix it. Because [Coughed] I let mine go, I kept having it, it kept getting worse and worse and it was really bad. And then I decided to get help like, if I had help at the ready, like in the beginning, it probably wouldn’t have been here.

DEP Teddy
Profile Info
Age at interview: 18
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 16

Background: Teddy is a high school graduate who lives at home with his parents, siblings, and dog. His goal is either to focus on music or to become a vet technician and work with animals. He is African American and Latino.

Click here to view Teddy's profile page
It was rough for Sara to realize she needed help, because her mom never wanted to believe anything was wrong. Once Sara did reach out and get medication, she felt better.
Interview Transcript

I had a friend who was depressed and she was taking medications and she was like, “Maybe you should talk to somebody.” She recommended I talk to somebody myself and I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to be on medication, I didn’t want to talk to anybody, I didn’t even want to think there was anything wrong. Because growing up, my mom didn’t want to think anything was wrong, so I figured maybe there’s nothing wrong, maybe you know. But no, there was, and realizing it was difficult, but I got through that and I am now dealing with it. And medication does help, it just wasn’t the right medication so I didn’t want to take that medication, but if you find the right medication it does work.

DEP Sara
Profile Info
Age at interview: 26
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 12

Background: Sara is the mother of a young daughter and was pregnant at the time of her interview. She has been living with her daughter and fiancé in various places, none of them permanent. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Sara's profile page

(Also see ‘Therapy and counseling for depression’ and ‘Depression, medication and treatment choices’)

Getting a diagnosis of depression

Most people we interviewed received a clinical diagnosis of depression. Some people got their diagnosis through high school or college health services. Others were diagnosed by doctors or therapists they saw privately, or in group homes, hospitals, or through evaluations in the foster care system.

Reactions to the diagnosis of depression varied significantly. Some felt the diagnosis suggested something manageable: in Joey’s words, “It’s like, there’s actually a name to it and there’s actual ways you can go from feeling here to feeling over here… It was a relief…. It was like, ok. You can do this. Move along now.” While others found it difficult to absorb or accept the diagnosis. Sara’s response was “I didn’t even want to believe that I had postpartum depression, because I didn’t like the definition of it. I didn’t like what they said about it.” Julia said she was not okay with the words “depression” and “eating disorders” when she first heard them, and even years later “it’s still very hard for me to accept these… diagnoses.” Casey felt like being diagnosed meant depression was something he’d have to “deal with forever maybe.”

A diagnosis of depression came as a surprise to Jacob, because he thought his fortunate life circumstances meant that he could not be depressed.
Interview Transcript

It actually took a while because when I was, when I turned eighteen and went to college that was sort of when I started actually taking concrete steps towards getting help, prior to that I sort of suspected that I needed help and I was doing a bunch of research to see if anyone else had these same symptoms and what you would categorize that as, because I never thought, I knew of the term, depression, I knew what that was all about but I never really considered that I might actually have depression because I had this idea that I couldn’t possibly because of my life circumstances. I had a great, supportive family, I was financially stable, I was getting an education, I was active, I had friends and no major life traumas, so I figured how could I possibly have a disease like depression, without any sort of precursors. It turns out it’s entirely possible and I didn’t realize that until I started really seeking help.

DEP Jacob
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 18

Background: Jacob is a software engineer at a large company. He lives with his girlfriend and a cat. He is White.

Click here to view Jacob's profile page
Devin felt a combination of anger and relief when he was diagnosed with clinical depression.
Interview Transcript

What was that moment like when you first heard somebody diagnose you, especially with the, was it the clinical depression the first time that you…?

Yeah.

Yeah. How did that feel?

For some reason angering.

Mhmm.

I’m not entirely sure why, but as soon as she said it, I guess it was just immediate anger and denial, I guess I was like, “No there’s no way I can have that.” Even though I know statistically with my family’s genes that I would definitely have something like that.

But you hadn’t already been thinking of yourself as somebody with depression?

Yeah. Yeah. I knew I definitely had to have something going on, but having a name put to it I guess was relieving, but angering at the same time.

DEP Devin
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 16

Background: Devin lives with his girlfriend and other roommates in a city he recently moved to from another part of the country. He has a part-time job in a store. He is White.

Click here to view Devin's profile page

Not wanting an official diagnosis

Several people we interviewed self-identified as having depression, but explicitly avoided getting an official diagnosis. Jeremy was concerned that black people are often mis-diagnosed or mis-understood by professionals. Nadina wanted to focus on alternative therapies and stay away from labels. Tia met with two different doctors who wanted to treat her depression and offered to prescribe medication, but she did not proceed with either because she did not want a depression diagnosis documented in her medical chart.

Jeremy feels that a depression diagnosis might act like a self-fulfilling prophecy, making his struggles with low mood -- especially during the winter months -- worse.
Interview Transcript

And plus like, the whole, the whole, how people don’t like, you know how people are very funny about psychologists, I’m like that. And then it’s funny having studied psychology and then maybe practicing to become a psychologist and to still have and still be kind of against like the whole I, I don’t, like I’m just like any other person even though I know more about the psychological field than the average person. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t like talking about it regardless, I don’t like talking about it to people, like I don’t like really talking about it in general and then I’m talking to someone I don’t know and then paying them too, it’s just not, I don’t, I don’t like that.

Mhmm.

I feel like you, you’re your best psychologist, you know yourself better than someone else and plus they might label you something that you’re not, like you know, you don’t want that.

DEP Jeremy
Profile Info
Age at interview: 22
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Jeremy is a psychology student and lives in an apartment with a roommate. He is mixed, Black and White.

Click here to view Jeremy's profile page

See also ‘Going public with depression?’, ‘Depression and feeling different when young’, ‘Therapy and counseling’, ‘Depression, medication, and treatment choices’, ‘Depression and school’, ‘Depression and transitions to adulthood’, and ‘Barriers to care’.

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