December 19, 2019:
It used to be that stigmatizing mental illness was the societal norm.
It was taboo. You'd lose your job, you'd lose your friends, where the movie in everyone's head was of straightjackets and electroshock. It was Frances Farmer, of all people, as a meat puppet in a ward somewhere.
More serious public discussion of depression started in the late 1980s, when Prozac revolutionized popular consciousness. Still to this day there's so much misapprehension, typically that depression equals sadness, a formula for significant disconnect.
More recently athletes, astronauts and celebrities are publicly acknowledging their struggles, nudging popular culture toward what could at least be healthier talking points. Kirsten Dunst, Dwayne Johnson, Ben Affleck, Katy Perry, Taraji P. Henson, Jon Hamm, Lady Gaga, Michael Phelps, Kristen Bell, Bruce Springsteen, Ashley Judd, Naomi Judd, J.K. Rowling, Terry Bradshaw, Buzz Aldrin, Wayne Brady, Robin Williams, and many others have come forward publicly with their stories.
These are predictably mixed. Some use their public platforms to further confusion between depression and sadness. Others explain their experience in terms which will be familiar to many who've undergone treatment. Springsteen said, "It's like this thing that engulfs you. I got to where I didn't want to get out of bed."1 Naomi Judd said she would "not leave the house for 3 weeks and not get outta my pajamas, not practice normal hygiene."2 Rowling said, "It is so difficult to describe to someone who hasn't been there, because it isn't sadness. But it's that cold absence of feeling — that really hollowed-out feeling."3 The experience Kirsten Dunst describes sounds very much like mine: "All I'll say is that medication is a great thing and can really help you come out of something. I was afraid to take something and so I sat in it for too long. I would recommend getting help when you need it."4 Their stories confirm the dominant pattern, that major depression occurs most commonly in one's twenties and sixties. Springsteen was in his sixties; Dunst, Bell, Hamm, Rowling and others in their twenties, frequently at college.
These celebrity interventions into popular discourse have helped dampen the stigma. Perhaps in time greater clarity will evolve.