“I never would have guessed you were depressed. You always seem so happy.”
“Really, depression? I had no idea…”
These are common responses when I mention depression has been part of my life. I hear the same reactions when we lose someone to suicide:
“Can you believe it? I never even suspected he was struggling.”
When the truth emerges about people who struggle with mental illness, others are usually shocked. However, I’ve come to expect the disbelief and surprise. After all, as someone who hid depression and anxiety from the world for years, I know firsthand how hard we work hard to hide mental illness from others. We wipe away our tears before walking out the door of our homes, and we try to keep our heads lifted high in public. We wear superhero masks and put on Emmy-worthy performances day in and day out. Though every person has unique reasons for sharing or not sharing struggles with depression, here are the top six reasons I don’t tell others I’m depressed:
1. It’s awkward.
This is sad but true. I remember the first time someone shared with me her struggle with depression, and I bumbled through an awkward response of “I’m sorry…I um, I have to go.” At the time, I didn't understand depression and knew very little about it. I had no clue how to engage in a conversation in something I didn’t understand. It made me uncomfortable.
Since then I have gained plenty of firsthand experience about depression and have a much more caring, empathetic response. I’ve also experienced those bumbling, awkward responses from the other side of the conversation; I’ve been the one to witness others stammer and blush and suddenly forget how to talk when depression comes up. Though the awkwardness doesn’t bother me much anymore, I do think twice about how someone will respond before mentioning depression.
2. I don’t want to come across as needy.
Unfortunately, the stereotype “depressed” person is "weak," needy, and perhaps clingy. In an effort to avoid this stereotype at all costs, we keep our struggles to ourselves. We strive to keep up our reputations as strong, independent individuals. Isn’t this the American ideal?
Yet herein lies the misconception that strong means not needing others—and furthermore, that neediness is equal to needing help. For a long time, I avoided talking about depression because I believed needing help made me less-than and weak, in the end only to discover true courage is practicing vulnerability and asking for help.
3. I’m afraid there’s something wrong with me.
Ashamed. Horrified. Scared. These are the emotions that plagued me in the pits of depression. Because depression is difficult to understand and has no cut-and-dry medical explanation with a formula to get better, it’s easy to fall into the lie that depression is an inherent flaw within me.
Depression carries the critical inner voice causing us to doubt our sense of value and our sense of belonging. "A freak. A failure. Of no value," it whispers in my head. With the pressure to conform and my natural aversion to vulnerability constantly weighing on me, of course I choose to keep my depression from others.
4. Some days I can’t even admit to myself I’m depressed.
Given the fears discussed above, it’s no wonder I try to convince myself I’m not depressed! On my best days in depression and on my worst, there is almost nothing I have wanted more desperately than for depression to be gone. I have wished for a magic cure, I have prayed and begged God to “take it away,” and I have spent hours on the internet looking for solutions to this mood disorder.
I have wished depression never existed, and I have wanted to forget about it altogether. I have tried to ignore it, to run from it, to numb myself to it—and on these days of denial, hiding depression from others simply comes as a byproduct of trying to keep it hidden from myself.
5. When I’m with you, I genuinely may be happy.
This may sound odd, but when I greet my friends and see coworkers in the hallway, I genuinely am happy in that moment—happy to see them, happy to know them, happy to spend time with them. In those moments, I am happy. I want to hear about their week and tell them about my day. I smile and crack jokes and do more than my share of laughing because I truly enjoy their company. It simply isn’t the right context to mention my depression, especially if I’m not feeling the full weight of it at the moment.
Because most interactions with others happen in these more superficial, thirty-second conversations, it makes sense that many would view me as a generally upbeat and happy person. The truth is, in the moments I interact with others I may be genuinely happy, but these moments do not necessarily represent my overall mental and emotional well-being.
6. I don’t want unsolicited advice on how to get better.
Well-meaning friends have suggested everything from antidepressants to praying and reading my Bible more. They have told me about their Aunt Milly and what cured her depression and the miraculous recovery of their friend Billy Bob.
For obvious reasons, this can be very annoying to those with depression. Everyone’s experience of depression is different, and what helps one person will not necessarily help someone else. It can also be exasperating because it can unintentionally imply that we aren’t already trying everything we know to get better. We probably already googled that therapy or pill or herbal supplement you’re telling us about, and we probably read about five articles on it while we were busy avoiding people!
Ways to Make the Conversation Easier
Though I've learned to become comfortable talking about depression openly, there are still ways people can make the conversation easier:
- Create a nonjudgmental attitude/safe atmosphere
- A focus on listening, not telling
- Genuine desire to learn and understand
- Phrases like “Tell me more about that” or “I’d like to learn more about depression and would love to hear about your experience”
- An environment where others are vulnerable about their struggles as well (a "me too" culture)
- The ability to relate but not compare (ie, “I/someone close to me has walked through depression, and I know it can be really difficult” versus “My brother was depressed but it wasn’t that bad”)
- After listening, asking “How can I help?” or “What helps on the hard days?”
- A “thank you for sharing” or acknowledgment of how much courage it takes to talk about taboo topics like mental illness.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the road of depression, or perhaps you’re walking alongside someone with depression. Regardless, I hope this list provides some insight—and please know, we are thankful for you. We are thankful for the conversations about depression, even if they’re a little awkward at first! We are thankful for community because even though we don’t always like it, we cannot do this alone.
Thanks for letting me tell you I’m depressed.