People aren't judged for having cancer or multiple sclerosis or eyesight problems or any number of other diseases and disorders. But hearing that someone suffers from depression may lead others to believe that something is wrong with that person or that he or she is "crazy" or "weak." Depression is a mental illness, just as other diseases are physical illnesses, yet it carries a stigma that many other conditions don't. And that stigma can prevent sufferers from getting help and living the lives they deserve.

Not everyone stigmatizes depression sufferers, of course. But studies show that in certain communities and in certain circles, depression is looked upon unkindly. A recent Australian study found that older men with limited educations were more likely to have a negative opinion of depression than others were. Many depression sufferers in the military or in law enforcement face stigma from their colleagues. One study found that depression in children carries more of a stigma in society than depression in adults. Depression and its treatment may be frowned on in certain ethnic or religious enclaves as well.

The stigma of depression can take many forms. It may be readily apparent, such as when someone makes a nasty comment about another's state of mind or pursuit of treatment, or it may be more subtle, such as a reluctance to befriend that person. But no matter how it's manifested, the stigma that depression sufferers face only makes the situation worse. Sufferers may live under great strain pretending nothing is wrong and may refuse to seek treatment, which can have devastating-possibly fatal—results.

If you're depressed, how do you deal with the prejudices others may feel toward you because of their condition? You can:

Get help. Treatment should not be put off because of the fear of being labeled in a particular way. Be selective when deciding who should know the details of your situation, and try to find supportive, loyal friends to help you through it.

Focus on maintaining self-esteem. People often stigmatize depression because it's something they don't understand. Remember that you are not your illness, and that depression is something beyond your control. By getting help, you're taking steps to improve your life.

Speak up. By educating others on the facts of depression, you're creating awareness and hopefully helping to erase depression's negative image.

Sources: Mayo Clinic, ; Perry, B.L., Pescosolido, B.A., Martin, J.K., McLeod, J.D., Jensen, P.S.  "Comparison of Public Attributions, Attitudes and Stigma in Regard to Depression Among Children and Adults." Psychiatric Services, 58:632-635, May 2007; The Australian National University,