Facing Social Stigma after Depression

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 20-year-old female and have had clinical depression for the past two years. Everything in my life stopped and went downhill, yet I’ve kept it a secret (only the four closest people in my life know). Thankfully, I’m slowly recovering. For the first time in two years I want to go out and make new friends, but I don’t know if I can do it.

When I meet someone new, a part of me just wants to burst out and tell the person about my struggles and depression. However, my boyfriend doesn’t like it and because of it I’ve lost some of his trust. I want to keep it a secret but it’s hard. I mean, I’ve lost two years of my life to depression. How can I explain that to someone, especially friends, without actually telling them that I have had depression?

Psychologist’s Reply

I’m glad to hear you’re feeling better. Often depression will eventually improve without treatment. Still, with the effective treatments we have, there’s no reason to suffer so long, and to risk many negative effects of ongoing depression. So, if you find that you’re not continuing to return to your old self, please choose to benefit from the medications and cognitive-behavioral counseling that have been demonstrated to be effective treatments.

It’s also important to recognize that about one-half of people who experience an episode of clinical depression will at some future point experience one or more other episodes (recurrent depression). This is important to recognize, so that treatment can be started sooner. It’s also important because it means this may not be the only time in your life that you’re faced with the issue of whether and when to disclose your experience of depression to others.

What’s behind your hesitancy about what to say, and your boyfriend’s disliking your disclosures? I imagine that the answer stems back to the stigma and stereotypes regarding depression (and other psychological and emotional disorders). Had you spent the past two years fighting cancer, it may not be something you would share with every stranger you met, but you might have less hesitancy than you do now informing people why you have been off the social radar.

Fighting the stigma of mental illness is a battle that mental health professionals and their clients face continually. As long as people keep their experiences secret, the stigma and stereotypes continue, thereby motivating more secrecy. The best antidote is education, and talking about depression and other disorders matter-of-factly. Secrecy implies embarrassment or shame, which implies that the condition is a reflection on the person’s character or willpower.

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On a personal level, not having to keep secrets is very freeing. All of your experiences are part of you — even those that were far from pleasant. If you talk about your depression in ways that make it clear that you’re not ashamed, nor are you expecting the listener to treat you differently, people will respond generally with an appropriate level of acceptance and respect. With practice, and positive reactions from others, disclosing your experiences will become increasingly easier.

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