Clinically significant depression affects nearly one of five adults. Its symptoms —whether they be sleepless nights or feelings of worthlessness—are a heavy burden for sufferers and caregivers alike.  The burden is heavier because it is born in isolation. In most quarters, depression remains socially toxic, a topic to be concealed from friends, co-workers, even family members.

Humor is a powerful means to combat stigma

Depression lacks a unifying public symbol that could bring it out of the dark like Livestrong bracelets did for cancer or the rainbow flag did for LGBT. When many people think of depression, their first associations are unfortunate images, such as a dark cloud or a noose. This is a problem.

Let’s say, for sake of argument, that we could produce a public symbol for depression. In fact, my readers have had amazing ideas for positive depression imagery. Even if we could all agree right now on the content of a depression public awareness campaign, there is a second problem:

Who will be seen bearing it?

Call it depression’s bumper sticker problem.

Don't underestimate the power of bumper stickers to change minds!

The bumper sticker problem is thorny and paradoxical. Three large groups would benefit from a bumper sticker campaign, yet each faces obstacles to participate.

Depressed people.

Benefit: Depressed would have an easier time managing the symptoms of depression if they were not social outcasts at the same time.

Obstacle: First and foremost, stigma lives. In our reigning conceptions of depression, the depressed person is seen as being fundamentally defective in some way. Consequently, depressed people remain ashamed of their condition. They don’t want it on their bumper.

Formerly depressed people.

Benefit:  Formerly depressed people have survived a difficult trial but they lack forums to feel pride, tell war stories, or pass on their wisdom to others who are struggling .  

Obstacle: Our culture’s relentless emphasis on happiness and depression's continued stigma virtually guarantee that formerly depressed people will always be looking over their shoulder. Their thoughts about depression are dominated by fear of depression's return. They want to banish all traces of depression from their life.  They want to forget. Depression on a bumper, that’s an uncomfortable reminder of their vulnerability.


Benefit: Caregivers are undersupported by any metric. Living with a depressed person is already very difficult. Caregivers are further exhausted by social isolation, which includes the charade of putting out a false face and pretending that everything is ok.

Obstacle: Caregivers have been trained by depressed people to suffer in silence. Caregivers would face (understandable) wrath if they participated in a depression awareness campaign against the wishes of the depressed person in their life.

I don't know if you've driven around much recently, but it's probably to say that depression is at least as worthy as the other various and sundry causes that people advertise on their car.

Is depression as worthy a cause as gun ownership?

The stakes. A vast army stands at the ready. Conservatively, 20 million US adults are currently depressed; twice that number had depression in the past. When we add in caregivers, many, many millions are affected by depression and are hence affected by the quality and quantity of our national conversation about depression. For a campaign that opens up this conversation, the stakes are high. No doubt, such a campaign would face challenges getting started (a marketing genius or two wouldn't hurt).  And even once launched, don't expect stereotypes that have been decades in the making to suddenly change. But with so much to gain, it won't take much to rouse this army.


Let's build a better national conversation about depression.

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About the Author

Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD

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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