Depression Doubters: How to Deal With Non-Believers

"Why is mental disease the only illness you can get yelled at for having?" asks actor Harrison Ford in a public service announcement to promote the movie No Kidding, Me Too! Ford is one of many actors hoping to raise awareness for mental illnesses, such as depression, and correct the widespread notion that mental illness is "all in your head."

More than 45 million Americans, 18 and older, had a mental illness, including 11 million with serious mental illness. Mental illness is not something you snap out of, and, unfortunately, stigmas such as "it's all in your head" are still common.

An article in Advance for Occupational Therapy Practitioners says the word mental implies it's not a legitimate medical condition, but rather a problem caused by one's own volition and actions—a character flaw, not an illness. The public service announcement and movie mentioned above points out there's no discrimination for diseases of other organs, and the brain is just as important as any other body part.

On his website, Kevin Thompson, Ph.D., author of Medicines for Mental Health, writes that the "it's all in your head" expression is disdainful because it implies a lack of will power or toughness. He says people with depression can describe symptoms in familiar terms that others can relate to (for example, "I feel sad"). The natural tendency for the listener then is to assume he understands how the other person feels. However, Thompson says, it's impossible to imagine an emotional state that you cannot experience, and major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder produce emotional states that don't exist in our normal human experience.

What to Do

Having friends, family members—perhaps even your physician—discount your depression is painful and, perhaps even worse, keeps many people from getting help. It's important to remember that others' judgments about mental illness stem from lack of understanding and accurate information.

The Mayo Clinic offers a few tips for coping with "it's all in your head" remarks:

  • Get treatment and don't let the fear of being labeled prevent you from seeking help.
  • Don't let any stigmas create self doubt or a sense of shame.
  • Don't isolate yourself.
  • Don't equate yourself with your illness.
  • Join a support group.

If, on the other hand, you know someone who is suffering from mental illness, an appropriate comment might be, "I understand you have a real illness and that's what's behind these thoughts and feelings."  




Thompson, Kevin. "Why Won't They Believe I'm Ill?" Web. 2008.

Changuris, Amanda. "Mental Health Awareness." Frederick Memorial Hospital. Web. 24 May 2011.

Myers, Carol. "The Stigma of Mental Illness." Advance 24(16) (2008): 32. Web. 4 August 2008.

Mayo Clinic. "Mental Health: Overcoming the Stigma of Mental Illness." Web. 26 May 2011.

Byrne, Peter. "Stigma of Mental Illness and Ways of Diminishing It." Advances in Psychiatric Treatment 6 (2000): 65-72. Web.