Going public with depression?

Decisions about “going public” with depression are complicated ones to make. Almost all the young adults we interviewed described struggles figuring out if, how and when to show their depression or tell others about it.

Most people described developing a “mask” to cover up depression at one time or another. Some did so for specific reasons, such as fear of being forced to go to the hospital for treatment or of drawing attention to themselves. Others isolated themselves with depression: as Kate put it, “I kept my cards close to my chest” and “didn’t really share my life” with friends or family. Nadina kept depression to herself to stay in control and remain “in charge of…, you know, how my mental health is handled.” Brendan also masked his depression when he was younger, but has worked hard to “come out of the closet” about it as part of making it less of a big deal in his life.

Brendan feels that part of learning to work with depression is to stop hiding and be open about it.
Interview Transcript

I think more when I was a teenager, I definitely did that, you know, I had a very loud, happy-go-lucky public face that, you know, was very charming and I still do that every once in a while because it wasn’t completely inauthentic to me, but yeah, no, I do it less recently.

For me, part of what resolving my depression means is essentially being able to — I mean I guess not “resolving” because as I say, I think it’s going to exist forever. It’s not like I’m going to beat it, it’s just learning to work with it, you know? And that means not having to be ‘in the closet about it,’ so to speak. You know? Not having to, you know, hide my depression when it’s there, just be like — You know, it’ll be like, “Yeah, my allergies are acting up. Yeah, my depression’s acting up.” Like, you know, it’s just a thing.

DEP Brendan
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Brendan has three jobs and is a fulltime college student and musician. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. Ethnic background is White.

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Some young adults masked their depression because they worried about how others — particularly parents — will react to or be affected by it if they let it show. Some were concerned that showing depression would cause pain to others. Pete worried that nobody would want to “be around a person that is depressed because… they make you feel depressed too.” Jackson didn’t want to be a target of abuse. (See also ‘Depression and work’ and ‘Depression and school’ for more about masking in those settings.)

Violet keeps her depression from her daughter to protect her.
Interview Transcript

I have, overall, made a great effort to hide any sadness that I have been experiencing. You know, childhood and innocence is just so fleeting. I’m, I’m so happy to see her happy all the time that I would never want to, you know, dull that. You know she should be care free, she should be just, you know bright, with excitement for everything, I, I never want her to be negatively influenced by what I am going through. So I’ve always, you know, waited to cry until she was going to go to bed or, you know, went to the bathroom for a minute to regain my composure, you know asked, any, anything that I could do so that she would not witness that.

DEP Violet
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 22

Background: Violet is the mother of a young child and a part-time student. She has worked as a nanny. She lives with her father and daughter. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Violet's profile page
Casey worries that if he tells other people about his depression it will exhaust them.
Interview Transcript

I feel like, I’m a very, kind of private person, in general, I have my like, my emotions or my understandings of things and I, I tend to keep them to myself until they’re fully formed because it can take me awhile to like figure out what they mean to me. And I think this is partially because, like, I realize, on some level, that if I were to, in these periods of depression, be like, “Here’s how I’m doing, here’s what’s up,” like, it would just be exhausting for the people I was near and that — is, is hard, because there are some ways that I would really like to be more, like, like, like, I don’t know, like open with my feelings and communicative and, and whatnot.

DEP Casey
Profile Info
Age at interview: 22
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Casey grew up in a rural place but now lives in a city with a roommate. He recently graduated from college and is considering graduate school while also looking for work. He is White.

Click here to view Casey's profile page
Nadina is concerned that if she tells her mom about depression, her mom - who also struggles with it - will both worry and feel at fault.
Interview Transcript

I feel like part of me is afraid to vocalize that I have this issue because, for one thing, I’m afraid of scaring my mom, because my mom is awesome and she’s, you know one of my best friends and, she’s always felt like she’s kind of passed on her anxiety to me. So I feel like she’d be really upset if she thought she’s passed depression on to me, which I don’t think is the case. But it might be something that she thinks and…

You know, I have, we have been talking about me seeing like a therapist or something because, especially what happened to me like this past quarter trying to complete school and what not. Just a lot of bad events, like one after another. So I, I definitely can tell that she wants to help me, but I’m just kind of worried about, you know (laughs) getting in to her with things, “well mom, you know, I, I’ve, I’ve had suicidal thoughts in the past, they kind of came up like this past quarter, I really think like, you know, I need to be seen.” And you know I’ve said things like to her, like that to her, without mentioning the suicidal part. Because I really just don’t wanna freak her out.

DEP Nadina
Profile Info
Age at interview: 23
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Nadina lives with her parents in a suburb near a small city. She completed college and works as a freelance illustrator. She is Caucasian.

Click here to view Nadina's profile page

Stigma

In the United States, depression has had a long history of stigma (defined as “dishonor or disgrace”) associated with it. In the last 30 years, there has also been a lot of activism, public awareness campaigns, and new approaches to addressing depression that have lessened the burden of stigma – at least for some people, in some ways. People we interviewed talked about the negative impact of stigma, and also about how they notice stigma is beginning to lessen or how they are working to (in Shayne’s words) “bust it.”

A number of people we interviewed named stigma as a reason for masking their depression. Jason described how a competitive college environment leads to a lot of “alphas” worried about revealing any weakness. Sophie talked about being the butt of jokes, Jacob about embarrassment at school, and Elizabeth about worry that her depression diagnosis would have a negative impact on her schooling and career. Mental illness can be stigmatized in many different cultures. For example, people from both Asian and African American cultures discussed how depression is specifically stigmatized in those communities, and several people noted how mentally ill perpetrators of violence have increased stigma for everyone else who has depression.

Tia didn't want to get a diagnosis because depression is frowned upon for African American women, and she did not want the diagnosis in her file.
Interview Transcript

And did your, did you get a diagnosis from your doctors, who offered you that?

No. That’s why I did not proceed with their help because I did not want to be labeled, I did not want that in my file. At all. So that’s where, me, dealing with it myself came in, because, I did not want to be labeled.

Okay, you know I, I, I know that depression has, you know, it’s a sensitive topic and it’s in, it’s in some kind of parts of the culture it’s stigmatized.

Mhm.

Do you feel that that is a stigma?

Def- Definitely.

Yeah and, and it, in your culture, particularly?

Yes, yes it’s not something that’s easy to talk about. I feel like African Americans or maybe women, I don’t know, I can’t speak for men. We deal with, you know, a lot and not having a support group makes it, or, makes it harder, ’cause we kind of have to deal with everything ourselves or you know, on our own and if I would say, “hey, I think I’m depressed,” it just, it’s something that’s kind of frowned upon or something that’s …

Frowned upon by? Like your friends, your family, your community?

I think maybe … The community. It’s not something that’s “in the norm,” I guess you would say? I don’t know, I don’t think people are educated on it much.

DEP Tia
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Tia works as a patient advocate. She is single and lives alone in an apartment. She is African American.

Click here to view Tia's profile page
Sally talks about how depression is a mental illness, and the fact that violent acts are sometimes committed by mentally ill people increases stigma around depression.
Interview Transcript

On top of all that, depression is considered a mental illness, so, mental illness in and of itself is like a stigmatized thing in America. Like with all these shootings and everything, and all these things that are going on, people are like, “Oh he had to be men–, he had to be, he had to be crazy, he was crazy ’cause he had depression.” Like the Sandy Hook thing that happened. He, yeah, he had depression, he had anxiety, he probably, they just talked about him having anorexia, Asperger’s, he had access to guns. He had all these different things like, there were so many triggers for that, but then it comes down to, “Oh no, no, no. He was crazy.” That was what it came down, he had a mental illness. So he was “crazy.” And so everyone like, is quick to jump to conclusions when you say like, you have a mental illness, or you have a mental issue, or you’re seeing a therapist.

DEP Sally
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 19

Background: Sally lives with her boyfriend, dog and cat in an apartment in a suburb. She is in graduate school part time and works as a researcher. She is Middle Eastern/Egyptian.

Click here to view Sally's profile page
Pete thinks telling people about his depression would hurt his reputation.
Interview Transcript

I think if someone knew that I was depressed, especially me, I’m like a very large, very strong guy. If somebody knew I was depressed, that would tarnish my reputation. That would make me — that would make me feel, and it would make me be, be seen as weak. I don’t want anybody to see me as weak, even if I believe it [laughs]. But, that’s, you know, neither here or there, but it’s — telling people is just something I wouldn’t do ’cause it’d, I feel like it would tarnish my reputation and people would see me different. Now, of course, my doctor wouldn’t see me that way, but, again, for me, the less people that know, the better. At least until I, I deal with it.

DEP Pete
Profile Info
Age at interview: 25
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: N/A

Background: Pete lives with his mother and cat in an apartment in a large city. He is Hispanic. He has worked various jobs in the past and is looking for work.

Click here to view Pete's profile page

Stigma does not always make people keep their depression in the closet. Some people become inspired to overcome stigma as part of improving their own health, emphasizing that depression is not their fault, or making things better for everyone struggling with mental health issues.

Shayne works to address stigma head on, and finds a lot of fellow travelers as she does so.
Interview Transcript

I want to, I want to break the stigma. I want to show people, that, you know, like, I am for the most part a very well-functioning adult in society. I feel, I don’t know. Right now I feel that way [laughter]. But, yeah I want to, I want people to know because I want them to know that there’s someone in their life who has a mental illness and that it affects everyone. I mean, it affects me on a daily level. But, you know, it’s important that people know, that these, that these people exist. That they’re everywhere, you know. I meet. It’s funny actually, I come out about my mental illness pretty frequently, and a lot of, I’ve met a lot of people who have told me, back at me, that they have mental illness. So I know a lot of people with mental illness because I’ve been so open about it, which is really cool. I really, it’s really nice to have a series, like. It’s good to have people who understand, you know? It’s really good to have people who understand. And, it’s cool that there are so – I mean, it’s not cool that there are so many people that have mental illness – but it’s also cool that there’s like such a support system, you know, that can exist – if you’re open about it.

DEP Shayne
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 13

Background: Shayne lives in a house with two roommates and three cats. She works in research, exercises regularly, and does art. She is White.

Click here to view Shayne's profile page
Brendan sees that everyone is 'weird' in different ways, and defies stigma.
Interview Transcript

Yeah. No, no. There’s, there’s this stigma of — about mental illness. People still are convinced that people with mental illnesses are dangerous, you know, that they’ll hurt you or that they’re contagious and they’ll make you crazier. Like, my, my personal view, honestly? Is that there is no sane, there’s no “normal.” Everybody has little idiosyncrasies that are a — that make you a little bit off from some idealized picture of normal. And some of them happen — some of them are certainly problems if they interfere with your ability to live your life. But, the stigma around the people who suffer from that needs to change, because they’re victims and because to a certain extent, we all are, to a certain extent, ‘not sane.’ We all have our weirdnesses and that should not be used against us.

I think I’ve been lucky to be in some remarkably supportive environments, since about my high school career, so no, not so much. Also because, as a straight – enough – white guy, like, you get a lot of, sort of credence in social, social spaces. And because, you know, I always identified as punk and everything, I was always the one who was, fine, like, “no, no I have a mental illness, like, and fuck you if you think less of me for it.” Like, if there was a stigma, I was always the guy who was going to challenge you on that stigma [laughs].

DEP Brendan
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: M
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Brendan has three jobs and is a fulltime college student and musician. He lives in an apartment with a roommate. Ethnic background is White.

Click here to view Brendan's profile page

A few people described seeing signs that stigma is decreasing in specific ways – for example, on college campuses, in social media, or in particular communities.

Myra notices that there is a little less stigma than before in the African American church and media.
Interview Transcript

Well, I notice that, that, people didn’t really start acknowledging depression until I was maybe 18. That, that was the same time that I found the whole afropunk field and everything, and I kind of think the two are related because that’s when I noticed a general acceptance of depression rather than just being like, “You ain’t depressed about nothing. All you got to do is pray and find your joy in the Lord and yada, yada, yada.” Our church choir had a song about that, let’s see, I don’t remember the name of it, but the lyrics were, “I almost let go. I felt like I just couldn’t take life anymore.” I don’t remember the lyrics after that, but that was like the first acknowledgement of depression in the church that I’d ever heard of. And it’s like “Whoa, they actually think this is an illness. They actually realize that this probably isn’t something that you can just pray away,” you know? But, I, I’ve noticed in the media a lot, a lot more, especially African American oriented publications, there’s more of an acknowledgement of depression and mental illness than as opposed to, like, 10 years ago, honestly, you’d barely see a blip of it. You’d only see it maybe once or twice every, gosh, hundred couple of articles, something like that? So, I am noticing more of an acknowledgement, which is great, I just kind of wish the whole prayer thing would be done away with, [laughs].

DEP Myra
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 27

Background: Myra is a musician works as an aide to older adults. She lives with her fiancé. She is African American.

Click here to view Myra's profile page

Masking depression

Masking depression can be a struggle: one person described being overwhelmed in public and having to leave the room she was in, and another said his depression sometimes “bursts out” when he is outside. Masking can also become a skill people use effectively — making up excuses when feeling bad, becoming a high achiever, or adopting a permanent smile. As Ryan summarized, echoing what a number of others said, “I kinda know how to put on faces for people.”

Elizabeth hid her dark thoughts very well, until they became overwhelming.
Interview Transcript

Yeah, I think that I was in such a dark place that, and this might sound strange, but, and maybe I’m, maybe I was naive to think this, but I felt like I was almost hiding it really well. Just because, my thoughts were just so dark and so negative that I thought, “Maybe if I just act ok, maybe if I go out with my friends, maybe if I get an A on this test, it will seem like I’m ok.” And, I clearly was not at all and I think my parents did know that, being the professionals that they are. But I, I will say that I did a decent job of hiding it for a while.

DEP Elizabeth
Profile Info
Age at interview: 28
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 17

Background: Elizabeth lives in a house with her husband. She works as a parent educator. She is White/Italian.

Click here to view Elizabeth's profile page
Maya is able to act upbeat even when her depression is bad - a skill she sees as connected to the 'insecure culture' around her.
Interview Transcript

By the time I got into high school I was pretty good at masking my feelings. I’m fairly good at sort of keeping up like a really like upbeat persona regardless of how depressed I am. Even when I am fairly nonfunctional, if you see me like out and about most people think that I’m pretty confidant and pretty well adapted and they’re like, “Oh, you know, you’re a really optimistic person and, you know, you’ve got it all together,” and stuff like that. And I think a lot of that, for me, comes from the fact that we had a fairly insincere culture when it comes to emotions. I mean, especially if you work in something like service. I mean, “service with a smile.” And foreigners a lot of times comment on how, how strangely friendly everyone in the States is and sort of how we have this, sort of, culturally mandated exuberance, you know, we can’t just be like, “Oh, you know, things are ok, they’ve been kind of tough lately.” Everybody’s supposed to say, “Great, everything. It’s going to be the best day it’s ever been and it’s the most beautiful and I’m going to be so successful!” And so, I’ve sort of taken that on, which I think can make it difficult sometimes, because people don’t recognize that you’re suffering, especially when you are able to, sort of meet your obligations — that it can be harder for people to identify you as someone who has depression.

DEP Maya
Profile Info
Age at interview: 27
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 15

Background: Maya manages an adolescent program in a community center and lives with her boyfriend. She is Chinese American.

Click here to view Maya's profile page

People talked about the eventual price they paid for masking depression, and the need to relieve the stress of doing so by closing the gap between their inner and outer lives. As Devin summarized, “the more you hold everything in, the more it’s going to get worse.” One participant described a breaking point when a friend was suicidal, and she realized it would be dangerous to let her parents keep believing she was a healthy, high-achieving young adult. Others said it was a relief to finally “let things fall apart” and stop masking.

Kate says she still keeps a lot in, but feels better being more honest with others.
Interview Transcript

When I was in high school and I still had that, kind of, disconnect between what I wanted other people to think me of, think of me as, and what I thought of me as [cough]. Very few people really got to see, what I viewed as my weakness, of being very self-conscious, being very self-critical. And now as I approach people I’m a bit more whole because the mask that I have is a bit closer to who I actually am. But I do still keep a lot of things that I perceive as weaknesses very close to my chest. So, you know, a lot of people could probably guess that I have depression, anxiety, and what have you.

I’ve worked on not having such a disconnect between the inner me and the me I present to strangers. Because, you know, I, I have figured out that is a sign of depression, and the worse your mask, the farther away your mask is away from you, the worse you’re going to, you know, hate yourself. You have to be honest with the people around you a bit more. You have to be a bit more trusting with your real self.

DEP Kate
Profile Info
Age at interview: 21
Sex: F
Age at diagnosis: 12

Background: Kate is an actress who works in an art gallery. She lives in an apartment with a roommate and a cat. She is white.

Click here to view Kate's profile page
Jeremy talks about doing better once he started to reach out.
Interview Transcript

It’s something I’ve always, I’ve dealt with since I was a child … sometimes just not feeling like I fit in at all and – not that anybody ever made me feel that way in my family, my family loves me, dearly, but, just that disconnect that I was having, I don’t know, sometimes not feeling like anyone understands me. And, I’m doing a lot better now than I was before. I was, in some pretty dark places, just, not reaching out to anybody, not talking to anybody about my issues, and that’s a big thing, too, is, if you don’t talk to anybody it just, makes it even worse. You don’t, you don’t let it out, don’t let anyone know what’s going on. People close to you may not, may have no idea about your predicaments or what’s going through your head.

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

Telling others about depression

When it comes to telling friends or intimate partners about depression, people we talked to had different approaches. Some preferred to talk about their depression right away and not “waste time” with people who might not be accepting. Several people noted they prefer to wait until the relationship is a bit more established; others talked about the risk of other people acting insensitive when hearing about depression and only disclosing to people they think will be most understanding. Colin noted that even when he does tell people, he prefers not to give too many details.

Joey's relationships with others improved when he told them about his depression, and he often learned they are depressed too.
Interview Transcript

I felt that was the only way I could even get through it was, would be to like, tell people around me that I’m on it. But a lot of people just know, I mean I’m, I’m pretty close to like most of my friends, I guess except for acquaintances. But I mean, if I’m friends with somebody it’s usually like a pretty close relationship and so they were, I mean, they were probably aware of it, even before like I was, a lot of the time. And I definitely have no problem telling people that I was on as SSRI, just because I, would, I actually learned like a ton of people were on it that never said anything about it, like, there’s like, it was like almost like half the people that I would say, “I am on medication,” like, “Oh yeah me, too!” It’s like, what, like, almost over half it seems like. I was constantly shocked at like how many people were like, “Oh yeah me, too, what are you on?” Like, “What?!” You had like no indication that they would be on it or, it didn’t seem like the kind of person, but yeah. I don’t know. It’s kind of just, at some point I realized the pattern and I was just curious on like, you know, how many people are out there that are doing various medications of various kinds? And like, yeah, most of the time it was an SSRI. Like very rarely would it be something for something else.

Wow. No, kind of, fears about disclosing … ?

No. I don’t, I’m a pretty open person. I mean, I’m somewhat of an exhibitionist. Like I, you know, most of the time that window, the blinds are like all the way to the top. You know, I don’t. I, I don’t feel, I mean, I’m sure I have secrets, but most of my life, it’s like, I don’t feel like I need to keep it under like lock and keys. Like, I’m not, I don’t have like trade secrets or anything. Like, you know, it’s like, I’m not worried about anything getting out and if it does, it’s like, you know. I don’t know. I think that’s a response to, I see, a lot of people in this world hold a lot of like secrecy around a lot of stuff, and a lot of people are embarrassed about everything and like, you can’t talk about money, and you can’t talk about this, and you can’t talk about that, and it’s like pretty much the opposite of how I view things. And I feel like a lot of the problems around are because people aren’t open with like their true feelings and so I’m, you know, not afraid to be like, “Are you on medication?” Because then it’s like, that opens up a whole new conversation that we never would have had and like, you know, this person could never have had this conversation before and been wanting to have it or like, you know, it’s just being able to like, relate to somebody else, knowing that they have, like, the same problems as you, I think, helps a lot. Like, to know that it’s not, just you going through it. Because there’s a lot of people, that it, or you know, it’s like any, even if it’s like an obscure problem or an obscure issue that you’re having, it’s like, you’d be surprised how many people have, like, a relatable situation to it, and they can help you out.

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.

Click here to view Joey's profile page
For Crystal, telling significant others about her depression is a sign of commitment.
Interview Transcript

It’s really ok to just tell people that, you know, you’re figuring things out on your own, and I’ve found that, that’s been actually really positive in my life, just because, people have shown to be more committed to me when they understand that I’m really trying to be in a, get myself to a better place where I can be fully committed to them. And it shows that there’s care on both ends. And so I, I definitely do respect that. So, anyway, that’s my …

Yeah, and so, and some honesty it sounds like …

Yeah, very much so …

… And you’re really, self-disclosing and clear.

Yeah. I mean, they don’t, they don’t, not all of them know all of the details, but I mean it is definitely enough to say, you know, “I’m, I care about you enough that I want to, you know, really seriously, whole-heartedly, take care of our relationship and our interaction with each other, and part of how I’m going to do that is take care of myself, so that way I can be better able to enrich what we have.” And under that, everyone I have been with has been very understanding, so.

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

See also ‘Therapy and counseling’, ‘Depression and everyday tasks’, and ‘Depression and work’.

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