THE BLOG
04/30/2014 02:48 pm ET Updated Jun 30, 2014

Why Admitting You're Depressed Is Like Coming Out of the Closet

I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder in March of this year. Many people will see this as a dangerous confession -- what if some future employer or lover or friend stumbles across this news on the Internet and decides I'm too "mentally unstable" to be associated with? Other people, however, will see this as courageous, and will recognize that depression is a sickness, not a sign of inferiority.

These responses are very similar to what a member of the LGBTQ community faces when coming out. Being gay has long been considered a "deviant" behavior or even a mental illness, and revealing one's sexual orientation remains a painful and deeply alienating process for many around the world. Yet, as the defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013 highlights, Americans' attitudes about homosexuality are finally shifting. The ubiquity of the rainbow flag says that yes, "gay is okay."

Depression affects 1 in 10 adults in the United States and is the leading cause of disability worldwide, but there is still no rainbow flag to show how many of us are united by this disease. When was the last time you heard someone say they were an "ally" for mental illness? How often do your friends or acquaintances admit without embarrassment that they see a therapist? If you yourself have been diagnosed with depression, how many people have you been able to tell without fearing judgment for being "crazy" or too vulnerable? Depression itself is isolating enough without the mistrust or condescension it invites in others, and there is no reason that so many of us should have to endure it in silence and in shame.

If we as a society can understand that being gay is not the same thing as "experimenting," maybe we can someday understand that depressed people are not simply "having a bad day." The first step is to pass on the message: being depressed is okay. Being depressed does not make you unlovable or unemployable or "damaged." Being depressed -- and this is often the hardest to remember -- still makes you a worthy human being.

So next time a friend or family member admits that he or she is depressed, take it as the coming-out that it is. Be kind. Be patient. And above all, do not turn away.

5 Myths About Being Gay That Also Apply to Depression:

  • Depression is not a choice. Part of the American Psychiatric Association's definition of a mental disorder is that it is outside of voluntary control. No one decides to feel cripplingly sad or numb or perpetually sleepy just to dodge work; if depressed people appear "lazy," it's because reduced effort is part of the disease.
  • It's not a "phase." While depression most often develops between ages 15-34, it can strike at any age, and it can be as chronic as any other medical condition, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. If you've already had one episode of clinical depression, there's a one in two chance you'll have another.
  • It's not specific to one culture or one kind of family. Depression affects 350 million people worldwide and, in wealthy countries like the United States, tends to more prevalent among the poor. Scientists believe that severe life stresses, such as childhood abuse or the loss of a parent, may be a factor, but estimate that the heritability of depression is around 50%. (In other words, your genes and your environment may be equally at fault.) Although certain populations are more at risk, anyone -- and I repeat, anyone -- can become depressed.
  • It's not contagious. Hanging out with depressed people may make you a little glummer, but it won't make you mentally ill. Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain and can't be transmitted by association.
  • It's part of who we are, but it's not all we can be. If someone is severely depressed, it's likely that they won't want to be doing much besides sleeping and hanging out by themself. But, underneath the depressed affect, they are still the talented writer or artist or devoted friend that you once knew. There is a good chance they will recover, and at that point, they will simply be a person who has struggled with depression in the past.