One of every seven Americans will suffer from it. About 12 million do now. It is the second leading cause of death among young adults - contributing to 30,000 deaths last year, mostly suicides. But most don't even consider it a disease.
But at a Hollywood-style, black-tie gala fund-raiser Wednesday orchestrated by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, first lady Barbara Bush admitted she suffered from severe depression for eight months in 1975."It was awful," she said, but she didn't seek treatment, thinking it was simply a state of mind and it was better to simply bite her lip and suffer through it. "Today we all know better. Depressive illness is an illness of the mind and body."
Mrs. Bush's admission - and the host of politicians, sports stars and actors rallying against the disease Thursday - was music to the ears of Paul Wender, a University of Utah psychiatrist who is chairman of the National Foundation For Depressive Illnesses.
"This does a lot to de-mystify and de-stigmatize the disease," he said. "Depressive illness is a true illness from such things as biochemical imbalances and hereditary factors. . .. It hits the most conscientious and solid citizens among us. But we can cure or improve the condition of 80 percent of the people who have it."
But he said four of five people go on suffering without seeking help, which can lead to sometimes lethal consequences.
But the fund-raiser Thursday raised $1 million to help Wender's association buy more public service ads to educate the public about the warning signs of depressive illness.
The money came from people who paid $1,500 each - or $15,000 for a table - to attend the fund-raiser and hobnob with the nation's rich and famous.
Like an opening night in Hollywood, limousines lined up to drop off movie stars such as Tom Selleck and Wilford Brimley at a long awning in front of the National Museum Building - which has hosted presidential inaugural balls for more than a century.
The unlikely conservative/liberal team of Sens. Hatch, Nancy Kassebuam, R-Kan., Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, greeted guests. And Mrs. Bush was the honorary chairwoman. But they all said Hatch was the force behind the gala.
Metzenbaum also laughed that he and Hatch were actually working together on something. "We disagree on a lot. But we did get together last year to plan an AIDS benefit, too."
Political humorist Mark Russell said he agreed to provide entertainment at the event after he saw the strange bedfellows who were organizing it.
"Sen. Metzenbaum called and said, `Orrin Hatch and I . . .' I was laughing so hard, I didn't hear anything else. Can you imagine stranger bedfellows?"