Disclosing your chronic depression to friends and family members can present challenges and risks, but also possibilities.

Around kitchen table, relative with an arm around family member who has depressionShare on Pinterest
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If you live with depression, folks may not understand you’re experiencing more than passing sadness. You can’t will away symptoms, which can often include loss of pleasure, feelings of worthlessness, poor concentration, and dramatic sleep changes.

They may not understand that the diagnosis hinges on symptoms occurring most of the day, nearly every day, for at least 2 weeks (and possibly much longer!).

Loved ones might feel like it’s just you and not know that depression is a primary cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

It can be helpful to have family members or friends help you navigate treatment options or at least empathize with what you’re going through.

Discerning how to disclose depression can be difficult. You may want support and understanding. You may fear judgment and overbearing advice. While these concerns are natural, there are ways to approach the discussion that may feel safer and be more successful than others.

A 2011 qualitative analysis of 417 survey participants investigated the perceived advantages and disadvantages of seeking help for depression from family and friends.

Advantages included:

  • a sense of unburdening
  • emotional, social, and informational support
  • love and closeness

Sometimes family members’ responses were hurtful, however, including:

  • giving too much advice
  • being judgmental
  • breaking confidences

Unwelcome responses reinforced perceived isolation in the folks living with depression.

Things people who don’t have depression have trouble understanding

A 2018 survey found that 87% of adults in the United States don’t think having a mental health condition is shameful.

However, some stigma remains:

  • 55% think mental illness differs from serious physical illness
  • 39% would think differently of someone they knew who had a mental health disorder
  • 33% are afraid of people with mental health conditions

Stigmas, even unconscious ones, tend to manifest in “if you’d just” advice:

  • “You’ll feel better if you’d just get out more.”
  • “If you just thought about someone other than yourself, you’d stop canceling plans.”
  • “Just brush it off!”

Broaching misunderstandings

Sometimes people are well meaning but misspeak out of anxiety or simply ignorance.

Psychologist Frederick Wiss suggests that with the well-intentioned, keep it simple. Try explaining:

  • your symptoms, plainly as possible
  • the steps you’re planning or taking to manage your depression
  • the things they might consider doing to be helpful

It can be hurtful and aggravating when people demonstrate they don’t comprehend or “believe” your lived experience.

As they say, “you can either pour water on a fire or gas.” Avoiding the urge to hurt them like they’re hurting you and instead delivering insightful words and actions calmly and assertively can best help “water” the situation.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests that when disclosing a mental health disorder to friends and family, it helps to know what you want:

  • Do you need a listener or a mentor?
  • Are there times when talking about mental health is off limits?
  • How much do you want to disclose?

Setting boundaries can protect you and reassure others.

Don’t: Take it personally

It sometimes helps to detach from how the other person is reacting and focus on what you are needing.

Instead of

  • “You’re criticizing me!”
  • “You act like you’re scared of me.”
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You might try

  • “Hm. Thanks for your interest in helping. I need you to listen, not advise, at this moment.”
  • “I’m making a list of people to call in a crisis. Would you like to see it or be on it?”
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Do: Keep in mind it’s likely they don’t know vs. don’t care

It may help to remember even your friends can’t read your mind. “I” statements might help educate them about what depression means to you.

Instead of

  • “You’ve given up on me.”
  • “You don’t understand me.”
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You might try

  • “This depression saps my energy. If I have to cancel, can we check back next week?”
  • “I’m having trouble focusing. Can you help me follow through on my therapy appointments?”
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Do: Vet before you share

NAMI suggests there’s no one-size-fits-all rule for how many people to tell about your mental health condition. However, you might consider what kind of emotional intelligence a person has, as well as their dependability and present bandwidth.

Is your best friend the best listener? Is your brother the closest person to you but prone to poke fun and share your private business?

Occasionally, someone who cares about you but is outside of your closest loved ones may display empathy and a willingness to help on your terms.

For example, you may wish to disclose to a work friend, particularly if you want an ally. Consider telling only basic facts initially; see if mutual trust develops before sharing more.

Instead of

  • sharing all your challenges with everyone you know
  • disclosing only after a crisis arises
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You might try

  • disclosing when ready, perhaps practicing with your therapist first
  • proactively sharing helpful or insightful information with a few trustworthy, emotionally intelligent confidants
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Do: Point them toward the most helpful information

When you educate friends and family members about your depression, you’re potentially helping to increase awareness and counter stigmas and myths about mental health conditions.

While seeing a mental health professional is a crucial part of treatment, disclosing your depression to friends and family can elicit valuable support.

Setting clear boundaries, being proactive, and seeking to inform versus pushback may help keep the experience of disclosure as positive as possible.