When Scott Davis, 38, was suffering from major depression, he confided in his sister-law. “One day I found myself talking to her about all my fears about the depression, and the medication and therapy I was beginning. I was overcome with anxiety about my future, and she said, ‘I’ve been there.’ Those three words lifted all the pain I was feeling.”
Few decisions are as personal as whether to tell a loved one that you are suffering from major depression. “Telling someone about depression isn’t something that you should enter into lightly, but if you choose a person whom you can trust, it can be a positive experience,” Davis says.
Nearly 18.8 million Americans over age 18 suffer from major depression. Unfortunately, most people never seek treatment. Left undiagnosed and untreated, depression can worsen, lasting for years and causing untold suffering, and possibly even result in suicide.
Symptoms of depression include:
Loss of enjoyment from things that were once pleasurable
Loss of energy
Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
Difficulty making decisions
Xavier Amador, PhD, an adjunct professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, says confiding in one trusted person is a key part of the treatment. “If you can, try to find someone who believes that depression is an illness. Most people don’t know all that much about it. A lot of suffering is prolonged by not telling someone.”
Kristen, who asked that her last name not be used, says she had been depressed for most of her teenage years. But she didn’t tell her parents about her illness until she landed in a psychiatric ward at the age of 20 and they called her cell phone, wanting to know where she was. “I didn’t want to put them through it, even though I had been depressed for a long time. I knew how much it would hurt them, and I didn’t want to do that to them,” she says.
Kristen, now 25, said her parents were "fantastic," educating themselves about depression and acting as case managers by interacting with her treatment team when she could not.
She says that people who are depressed have to do what’s best for them in their situation. “I know people whose parents kicked them out of the house, or who don’t believe in depression,” she says. “Whether to divulge or not is a very personal thing.”
Depression: How to Approach Family and Friends
Most people still know little about major depression. A loved one may be frightened by seeing someone in its grip, even if they want to help.
You may not want or be able to go into a lengthy discussion with them about what major depression is, but Davis recommends that you don’t sugarcoat it either. “If you have severe depression, tell them,” he says.
You might tell the person that you probably won't feel like talking much or doing any of the activities you used to enjoy, but that their support is comforting. If you feel like going for a walk or seeing a funny movie, ask them to go with you but not to push you to do more.
A very important note: If you are feeling suicidal, it’s not the time to be secretive. Call 911 or go to an emergency room or call a suicide hotline. Your call will remain confidential, and the people on the other end of the line are well trained.