"I didn't know what was wrong:" how people with undiagnosed depression recognize, name and explain their distress

J Gen Intern Med. 2010 Sep;25(9):954-61. doi: 10.1007/s11606-010-1367-0. Epub 2010 May 15.


Background: Diagnostic and treatment delay in depression are due to physician and patient factors. Patients vary in awareness of their depressive symptoms and ability to bring depression-related concerns to medical attention.

Objective: To inform interventions to improve recognition and management of depression in primary care by understanding patients' inner experiences prior to and during the process of seeking treatment.

Design: Focus groups, analyzed qualitatively.

Participants: One hundred and sixteen adults (79% response) with personal or vicarious history of depression in Rochester NY, Austin TX and Sacramento CA. Neighborhood recruitment strategies achieved sociodemographic diversity.

Approach: Open-ended questions developed by a multidisciplinary team and refined in three pilot focus groups explored participants' "lived experiences" of depression, depression-related beliefs, influences of significant others, and facilitators and barriers to care-seeking. Then, 12 focus groups stratified by gender and income were conducted, audio-recorded, and analyzed qualitatively using coding/editing methods.

Main results: Participants described three stages leading to engaging in care for depression - "knowing" (recognizing that something was wrong), "naming" (finding words to describe their distress) and "explaining" (seeking meaningful attributions). "Knowing" is influenced by patient personality and social attitudes. "Naming" is affected by incongruity between the personal experience of depression and its narrow clinical conceptualizations, colloquial use of the word depression, and stigma. "Explaining" is influenced by the media, socialization processes and social relations. Physical/medical explanations can appear to facilitate care-seeking, but may also have detrimental consequences. Other explanations (characterological, situational) are common, and can serve to either enhance or reduce blame of oneself or others.

Conclusions: To improve recognition of depression, primary care physicians should be alert to patients' ill-defined distress and heterogeneous symptoms, help patients name their distress, and promote explanations that comport with patients' lived experience, reduce blame and stigma, and facilitate care-seeking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Depression / diagnosis*
  • Depression / psychology*
  • Diagnostic Self Evaluation*
  • Focus Groups
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / psychology*
  • Self-Assessment