Charting the Depths

Reflections on the science of depression.

A Personal Story of Depression Stigma: Then and Now

What's wrong with this picture? More than meets the eye.

Before I became a research psychologist, I was studying to become a historian and living in Baltimore, and I got severely depressed, for a long time. Despite attentive treatment from several mental health professionals, the depression refused to budge, and I wound up being admitted to The Johns Hopkins Hospital Henry Phipps Psychiatric Service. Here's a picture of some of the admissions paperwork.

If you look very carefully you might be able to spot something wrong with this picture. Concentrate, collect yourself, and study the image. Maybe you will notice something wrong.

 

My Intake Paperwork for Psychiatric Hospitalization

If you look at the bottom line, the dates of the patient and the dates of the witness differ by a year. It turns out, I got the year wrong. I signed 1994; the witness correctly signed 1995. My error was telling. I had become disconnected from my surroundings. I did not read a newspaper, watch movies, talk about current events. To this day,  the events of 1994 -- the year OJ ran from police in a white bronco --left little trace on me.  By January of 1995, I had fully imploded. Lost in the depression.

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So I botched the date by a year signing an important document, but that's not what was really wrong with this admission. What was really wrong was that I was going into the hospital with a condition that taken an able-bodied adult and ground him down into a frightened child and very few people knew about it. Despite the fact that I was fighting for my life, I did not want people to know it and the stigma and shame of depression was such that the friends and family on the short list who did know naturally wanted to keep matters close to the vest. It's hard to imagine another reason for a hospitalization --whether for a burn, two broken legs, or for cancer treatment-- that would produce such a conspiracy of confused silence.

The past is the past. What's done is done. What I'm concerned about is the future. One reason I've started a national campaign to change our conversation about depression is that I know there's another young man or woman clutching a pen and signing a similar paper in similar circumstances. And whose friends and family still don't know what to do or say about it. It's 18 years later and something is still wrong with this picture. In fact, when it comes to the shame and stigma of depression, almost nothing has changed.

 

Jonathan Rottenberg is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, where he directs the Mood and Emotion Laboratory.

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