The Devastating Consequences of Secret-Keeping

by Melissa O’Neill, LCSW

An article appeared in the New York Times this month titled, “Alone with My Husband’s Secret.” The secret was his depression. In a first-hand account, the writer shared the negative impact this confidence had on him, and ultimately, her.

There are few absolutes in this world, but one of them is that secrets are simply not healthy.  This is particularly true in families, whether the family unit consists of 10 people or one married couple.

PeacefulGirl-smallSecrets eat away at the soul.  Kept long enough, the stress and worry can also cause physiological damage. By and large, secrets are predicated on shame. Parents may insist on a conspiracy of silence if the mother drinks too much or if the father hits the kids when angered. This message of being sworn to secrecy can be conveyed to the children either implicitly or explicitly.

Mental illness is a common motivator behind secret-keeping as was the case in this article. The husband wanted no one, not family or friends, to know of his mounting depression. His spouse agreed to keep it private out of love and loyalty. Over time, the marriage eroded. The wife lost her husband and best friend to the darkness of his disease. In addition, she lived in constant fear of losing him permanently.

Not only do secrets, by definition, indicate that those involved deceive the outside world, but by default, it means that the person with the disease or disorder is not getting the help they need. Individuals struggling with serious issues like depression and anxiety require professional treatment, just as a person with a physical illness such as cancer or diabetes must have specialized care.

Unfortunately, it often comes down to one issue:  stigma.

While the American culture has come a long way from lobotomies, sanitariums and labeling people as “crazy,” we still have miles to go in reducing stigma while simultaneously acknowledging and accepting the reality of such diseases.  Even the term ‘mental illness’ isn’t one that people use with comfort and ease.

Considering that one in five adults in the United States experience some form of mental illness in any given year, these diseases are far too prevalent to be shoved under the symbolic rug. Denial only moves us away from our goal, given that most effective treatments for depression and other mental illnesses include open and honest communication.

Keeping secrets only continues to keep us sick. We must bring everything from clinical depression to severe psychosis into the light of day. Not only will people get help, but secret-keepers will be set free from the bondage of shame, and importantly, deception.

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