Your Health

Depression And Families' Fear Of Being Labeled

Depression doesn't carry the stigma it once did, but it is still tough to get people to talk openly about their personal experiences.

depressed girl looks out at frozen lake

Depression hurts, and it's still hard for families to talk about. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com

I've been doing stories on mental illness for 15 years. When I started, very few people wanted to talk to a radio reporter about it. It's hard to be anonymous on the radio — even if we change a name, which we only do under limited circumstances and with full disclosure — the voice is still recognizable.

Back then, many people didn't want to talk about depression because they saw it as a weakness, not an illness.

But various advocacy groups have worked hard to change the public perception of depression. My favorite is something called Stigmabusters, sponsored by the National Alliance for Mental Illness. It's a network of advocates who publicly jump on Hollywood or anyone else who makes fun of people with mental illness.

And Congress recently made sure that health insurers treat mental illness the same way they treat physical illness by passing the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008.

So I thought the stigma was mostly gone.

But in reporting a story over the past few weeks about how depression affects families, I've found that much to my surprise, family members of people with depression are still reluctant to talk. You can find the story, which aired on Monday's Morning Edition, here.

In one case, I interviewed a mother and daughter in a family with depression. Both told me they wanted to get their stories out. They had a mission. But then a third member of the family called the mother and begged her not to participate in the story. The third family member thought the depression diagnosis would bring shame on her. She didn't have depression.

In another case, I interviewed an adult who has talked publicly about the depression of a parent. But when I spoke to the parent, he told me not to mention him in any way in the story. He was worried about the implications for his wife and her job.

You'll notice I've been very careful to use no identifying characteristics in these descriptions. I won't violate their confidentiality — I'm not going to "out" them. But I am re-thinking my belief that the shame and fear surrounding the disclosure of mental illness has subsided.

In the end, I did manage to speak to a few brave people willing to share their stories. Listen to my piece on depression and families on Morning Edition on Monday.

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