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Depression

Relationships with friends and family when you have depression

People who are depressed can find it difficult to feel close to anyone, and can even believe that their friends do not like them. They can also feel a burden to their friends and family, making it harder to ask for - and accept - help.

 
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When depressed he thought that his friends and family didn't like him, but therapy helped him to...

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Age at interview: 30
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 26
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Well the main distortion in my thinking when I was depressed was about people not liking me' which was a huge break through in therapy. Realising that, when I was in depression that I'd even, even doubt, my friends and family they didn't like me, I thought even my best friend, he, I've known him for, since we were both 11 years old, so its almost 20 years, I even convinced myself that he didn't want to know me anymore. That he thought I was useless and which in reality wasn't the case at all, you know we love, we love each other deeply, and that's always been the case.

As discussed in the summary 'Childhood and life before depression', many people had difficult relationships with parents and siblings. These included that their families couldn't cope with mental health problems, lack of acknowledgement of feelings in families, homophobia, and poor communication. These problems made it hard to get the support people wanted from their families. It could be particularly difficult for people whose parents also had mental health problems, although some such parents were an inspiration.

 
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Counselling revealed that his family did not talk about emotions easily, so he talked to his...

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Age at interview: 30
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 26
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I think part of the problem was that we also spoke about in counselling, is that as a family, we were never really... we weren't really brought up to talk about emotions. We never really spoke about emotions with our parents, so I never really went in depth with my parents. They were always... they were aware that I was off sick and they were concerned but we never really spoke about it in depth. I used to talk about it mostly with friends, sort of colleagues as well, but in the main sort of release point was the counselling, which was to me was crucial. If I hadn't have had the counselling, I'd probably still be severely ill and wouldn't be, you know, happily now saying that at last I'm enjoying life to a greater extent.

 
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Her mother has faced her anxieties and not let depression stop her from doing things, and so she...

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 16
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But basically, my Mum has always experienced depression in a sort of similar way to me, I think. And basically, her response is just to like do it anyway and just kind of, she's always done stuff but she gets really anxious and she'd always get really scared but she's done so much. She's gone travelling and like she's done jobs where she was really scared of it and she'll just do it and she doesn't let things stop her. So I've always felt like, yes, there's some things that I haven't done because I was scared but other things. I refuse to let my, have the depression stop me doing anything so I would never have a day off through being depressed. I would never not do something that I was supposed to be doing because I was feeling depressed.
 

Therapy could help people to cope with their families, and people also looked for support outside families, particularly from friends. One woman had family therapy, which helped the family to communicate better, and also helped her to think about her family differently. Despite problems in families people without any family connections can also suffer.

 
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Family therapy helped her family to communicate better, as well helping her to accept that she...

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Age at interview: 33
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 23
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And did going to family therapy change the family dynamics in any way? 

I think so. Not, you know, it doesn't, he, it doesn't solve everything but I think it made us all a lot braver and to kind of remove this, this fa'ade. And also I found it very difficult to accept that I loved these, I loved people very much and we were very close, and we are fairly close but that I didn't actually like them. This, this was the, in many ways and there's ways that I do, but I find that very difficult inside and now I can, I, whatever you realise a lot of people have their... and you just accept but, oh my God, the guilt and all of that. But I think it did help us communicate, yeah, a bit more, yeah.
 
 

Christmas time brings the absence of family into sharper focus for him; he feels he has somehow...

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Age at interview: 50
Sex: Male
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It's Christmas funny enough that brings it into sharp focus, because all my friends bar this one have some sort of relationship, families they go to, and now I don't have that, I don't have a family, my older relatives are all dead, I don't have that sort of family connection. And I just had a 50th birthday party last week and 47 people were there. The fact that I counted them all [laughs] is probably instructive actually. I invited about 60 but some people couldn't come, but a lot of them have partners, not all of them, and sometimes you can feel when you're, you know, this is a real big thing in depression when you're single that you've failed in some way. And sometimes couples make you feel that you've failed, they don't always do it intentionally.

Some friends did not understand depression and the possible feelings and thoughts involved, and so could not give much support. Some people even provided unhelpful advice e.g. “just pull yourself together”, “Christians shouldn't get depressed”. The experience of depression and mania helped many people to work out who their real friends were, although it can be difficult to know whom to trust when depressed or manic.

 

It is sometimes hard to know who your real friends are, but they are probably those who show...

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Age at interview: 55
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 51
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So if you, the advice that you'd give, you'd need to find a really good friend and you're never quite sure who your friends are. As they say, "A friend in need is a friend in deed", you've basically... you work on people that really seem to be still concerned about you when you're in this state, and they, they are probably the people that you know, you should confide in and find out that you know. It won't always work, sometimes you'll have chosen the wrong one and the very person you thought you could trust is actually the one who is the Judas if you like, and the one who reports you to the authorities [laugh] so you really need someone that... that totally trusts you regardless of what you say and doesn't say, "Right it's in your best interests to do such and such a thing".

Nevertheless, many stories describe how particular neighbours, friends, family members or colleagues could understand and be supportive. People sometimes got support from unlikely people. Friends who had had depression themselves were particularly helpful because they had first-hand understanding. Being able to talk about depression with supportive friends could be a great relief. There are some particularly tough issues like suicidal thinking that people benefited from talking to friends about. Interestingly, those who went to University (particularly the elite Universities) reported that they knew many depressed students, many of whom understood what they were going through.

 
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When he told his neighbour about his depression, his neighbour hugged him and offered comforting...

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Age at interview: 45
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 45
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I decided to tell my neighbours because I mean I like them, I wouldn't tell them if I didn't like them. But, because some of them are' work from home you know, and they used to see me at home. I just felt better for telling them what, that I am depressed and they, they were very supportive the first day I told them. He ' He, this neighbour next door, he even kind of hugged me and said, 'It's going to be okay.' And sometimes a very small gesture like this or a card, you know or someone looking at you or holding your hands, God knows, anything that's' Some stuff that's probably done on a daily basis' That you don't see has any meaning, you know like a handshake or a hug or a kiss or, I think it helps.

 
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A friend of a friend turned out to be very supportive during her depression and recovery.

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Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 40
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I had it was a friend of a friend, and I had only met her really once or twice, I didn't really know her. And she was just so lovely, she would write me notes and, you know, even now I can't get over her... she'll come up and see me once a week or, you know, after work she'd come on her way home from work, and we'd sit and have a cup of coffee. She sat here when I've been in tears and I'm going, "I'm really sorry [woman's name]." She'd say, "It's not, no it's no problem" and I, me even now I can't go out at night, I won't go out at night and ...so I will, say on a Saturday morning, I will meet my friend for a cup of coffee and that's only just out in a coffee shop. And that's only just happened in the last 5 months that I've been able to do that.
 
 

Has met a woman friend with depression whom she can trust and talk to about personal issues.

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Age at interview: 63
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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And this lady, she is 79, which is a little bit older than me, not a lot, and her husband's semi-invalid and all this, that and the other. And you know, over the five years I've known this lady, because I go shopping for her or I go to a meeting with her, council meeting or something. I've got so close to this lady that I can talk to her.

And we got on to talking about my Dad. And I, now, the way I feel now I, I've said to her that, I mean, this is all I've said to her but I feel I could if I wanted to, talk to her about it. The way I feel about my father at the moment I wish I hadn't bothered, you know. I realised then I'd said something. And she said to me when you are ready, you'll tell me. She didn't push me. So therefore I feel, she's not nosey, she doesn't want to know out of curiosity else, she would have, you know, kept on picking. So I feel I could talk to her. Again it would be another piece of support.

 
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Her friend has educated herself about depression and is accepting, and so she can talk to her...

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Age at interview: 40
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 37
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Yeah I have one friend, who was actually, I actually went to university with, and was there when I was first unwell, so she knows me quite well, and has seen me very low before, so she's you know, stood by me, quite well'. And it's got to the situation now when I can actually acknowledge to her that I do get periods of feeling suicidal and she will actually have that conversation with me, whereas previously that was far too scary. The thought of actually mentioning it, but now that's out in the open it's made our relationship a lot stronger, that has'. I think what has helped my friend is that she's read a lot about it, she's learned a lot about it, she's been interested. She cuts out magazine articles for me, I've lent her books that she's gone away and read. She wants to know more, but at the end of the day, just being there, consistently. Consistently being there, not necessarily asking why, you know, why you're in this situation, just accepting that this is how you are, and that at some point you may choose to say, 'This is why I think I have depression'. And just really being a friend in that sense.

 
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Says it is not wrong to think about suicide. Thinking of suicide - and talking about it to a...

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 36
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It's not bad, if you want to kill yourself. If someone's determined to kill themselves, they will. And all this crying for help and the attitudes I've heard of so many casualty nurses when I used to work as a student, 'Oh it's selfish, it's this, it's that.' Yes, okay, it's selfish. Okay, it's a selfish thought, I want to kill myself, I don't want to go on, it's awful, it's dreadful. So what if it's selfish?

It's not the primary meaning of it?

No. It's not the primary meaning of it. It's the, the meaning of it is that I just, just want to be out of it. I want to be away from this and the only way I can solve my problems at the moment is to be, is to remove myself from them. And I suppose, I suppose if you sit and think about it enough then you'll think about, well, who are you going to leave behind? But I will say, it acts as a comfort for me and it does prevent me'.. and I have got very low at times, but I just think, well okay, yeah you can do it, [interviewee name], but do you really want to do it? Is it actually going to solve any of your problems? It's not going to solve any of them but it's still my comfort. And I have a friend that understands that way of thinking as well because she feels exactly the same. And obviously'.

What's it like to have a friend who understands?

Marvellous, because she knows exactly what it feels like, and I know how she feels about a lot of stuff and she'll just say, 'Well, yeah, I just feel like killing myself at the moment so I just need to ring you up and talk to you about it.'
 

While some people had good social networks of support, others were more isolated. Social situations could be threatening and several said it was hard to make friends when depressed, even though they knew that a better social life would be good for them. More isolated people could improve their networks by joining support groups or special interest groups and getting involved in voluntary activities outside the home.

Family and friends may not know what to do because depression can mean that people would rather isolate themselves from others than communicate. People said that friends and family could help by doing simple things. For instance, being around without necessarily saying anything, helping with practical problems; encouraging rather than persuading, listening without trying to provide solutions; watching out for signs that a person is becoming depressed or manic; and helping the person to engage in a distracting activity.

 
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He cut off his friends when he was depressed because he did not want them to see him depressed,...

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Age at interview: 33
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 24
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When I was at my worst, I had completely isolated myself. I completely isolated myself from my group of friends who, you know, we meet up, friends from university, friends from a long time and we are always firing e-mails back and forth. And I actually use one e-mail account only for my friends and I didn't check it, I purposely didn't check it when I was depressed. And it was actually subsequently when I started feeling better and did check my e-mail account and found one of my best friends had actually come back from the States and had offered to meet me, because he was going to be in town and he had got no reply because I wasn't reading my emails. There was a whole load of things that I missed out simply because' well partly I didn't want my friends to see me like that. I knew I was really, really low and I didn't want my friends to see me. I also didn't feel that I could even cope with talking to my friends. I wouldn't go near the telephone. I would not telephone. I avoided speaking on the telephone as much as possible. I didn't want to talk. Certainly didn't want to talk to anyone face to face. Even my wife, I really didn't want to talk to her. I just wanted to be left alone. I didn't want to talk to anyone. Again, as I say, partly because I didn't want people to see me as I was, partly because I didn't feel, I didn't feel like communicating, I didn't feel as if I could communicate. I just wanted to sit, sit in a darkened room in silence.

 
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Although talking and listening was too tiring when depressed, having her friend there and doing...

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Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 37
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Yes, we needed to balance it because I would still get very tired, and so I didn't want somebody who was there, talking all the time, because I found talking and listening tiring, and we, we might just go for a walk, and say very little really.... But just having their presence there. I don't, I don't know. I think I was frightened that I would go mad in some way, and loose control completely. That never happened, even when I was in hospital, that never happened. I was overly controlling really, but I just felt that if anything like that happened I'd got somebody there with me, and I was safe and [son's name] was safe. So as I say, I just remember someone sitting in the kitchen with me while I just tidied round and did the ironing. Somehow it just helped give me a little more motivation. We talked about very little. She just shared her day with me. It was very mundane, and then we just had a coffee. We didn't talk about a lot, we didn't say a lot, we just... having her there I just felt safe in some way.

So it was her presence more than conversation?

Yes, yes. As I was saying I did get very tired very quickly and I did have a friend that talked a lot, and I cut back from seeing her because it was just too wearing.
 
 

Her friends are supportive and watch out for mania, including over spending, and so will ask...

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 18
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Good friends. I've got a really good network of supportive friends and they will help me and you know, my close friends like Chris and Ian will, will be aware of what's happened to me before and like me, you know, will start to be aware of what the signs are for any sort of relapse. 

For instance before Christmas I was hiring a car for the Christmas period and I'd made quite a few train journeys just before that. And I had no credit left on my credit card and I rang a friend to say, 'Could I put this on your credit card and I'll give you cash next week?' and he said, 'Yeah sure okay', and gave me all the details and afterwards he just said to me, 'Can I just ask why you haven't got any money on your credit card?' and I explained and he said, 'Oh yeah, okay fine, I just wanted to check'. And I said oh thank you and thanks for doing it like that, rather then sort of coming out with, 'What do you mean you can't afford it, you haven't got any money on your credit card', but just to say, 'Why haven't you got any money, lets just check you haven't suddenly gone manic and overspent'. And I could actually explain well I, you know, I went to Newcastle to this friend's funeral, I went to this recently and that and I hadn't had my expenses back from this, and he was, 'Oh okay yeah of course I can lend you it'.

 

Feels that friends need to treat depressed friends as having a serious illness, find out what...

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Age at interview: 55
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 53
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What advice would you give to friends about how they can help depressed people?

To treat, to treat the friend as if, who's depressed, as if they had a very serious illness, and to ask them.... maybe even to ask them what they'd like them to do, maybe even do something very simple like inviting them out and taking them for a meal or a coffee or a walk. The friends that did that for me I shall always be grateful to, even though I was very conscious that I was no company. You know, any friends that can do that are worth their weight in gold.

Sometimes supporting someone with depression can be tricky - as one woman said, her friends needed to be “switched on” to deal with her changing needs. Some friends and family act as advocates (i.e. doing something to help a person get something they need or want), such as helping the person to visit and communicate with their health professionals (for more information see Mind's guide to advocacy). One woman who told a friend that she had attempted suicide was immediately accompanied to her GP for help.

 

Her supportive friends could deal with her changing needs, as well as give practical help such as...

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 33
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I think they had to be quite switched on, and to know how to deal with me, because sometimes I would want to sit and talk about how bad I was feeling and, you know, how dreadful life was and all those things. But then sometimes I'd just think, I don't want to do that... I just want to act normal and sit and have a cup of tea and have a chat about the weather and just not go down that route because I'm just too tired of it all. So, I mean some of them offered to.... to look after my son for me, to baby-sit because we had no one to baby-sit so we... we hadn't been out for about 6 months because we had no one to look after the baby. So a couple of friends looked after him one night so my husband and I could go out.

 

She told her friend about a suicide attempt, and her friend took her straight to her GP for help.

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Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 41
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This man, in a sort of twilighty evening, this man emerged walking his, his dog, and climbing up from one lock gate to the next, and came upon me standing there solitary in the light. And said, 'Are you alright?' He scared me actually to the point that I almost fell in. I mean, but it jerked me back into reality again and, and I stepped back. And he, he didn't get into conversation with me or anything, but I stepped back and realised you know, that I have, you know, this was really as far as I'd ever gone before. So I got in the car and drove home. 

And the next day, as I say I had was meeting this friend, and we went for a swim and I admitted, you know, what I'd done the night before and how easy it would have been just to let go. And, she said, "Oh, you know, I think the time has come, you must go and talk to your GP, you must do something about this." And she actually made me get out of the swimming pool, she made me get dressed and she rang the surgery and made an appointment. And thankfully, you know, I was able to get an appointment that same afternoon, and she waited with me. And actually accompanied me to the surgery. She didn't go in with me.

Those with a partner, wife, husband or children often worried about the effects of depression on them. Despite the difficulties for all, most praised their partners for the level of emotional and practical support they gave. Nevertheless, the effects of depression on carers was a particular concern for some. People worried especially about the impact of their depression on their children, and found the issue difficult to approach with their children.

 

His wife helped a lot by looking after the children and household duties, but he regrets the...

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Age at interview: 75
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 35
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Yep, [sigh] my wife'was very supportive over a long period. Many years. And in the worst periods'.she found it difficult to relate. That it was going on so long. And since there were sort of about 3 major bouts of it. The ones where I needed'. [laugh]. She found it' trying and who wouldn't. Because I think it's harder for the person living with, in many instances, than the actual patient really. Because things are very slow to change and improve. 

So she also had to take on the role of a sort of go-between the children and me. She did sort of protect them, if that's the right word, from the worst part of it. I would do'. Oh you know, the garden and things around the house, and all that sort if thing, which was my job to do in a way, as well as the work. But I found it difficult to relate on the day-to-day things, which is where she was so good. She took over those things, and that was very helpful. But I' I feel that we missed a lot because of it. My sons were very good, but they missed a lot because of how I was. And they would have to make allowances, which isn't really what you should have to do when you're growing up. So she stepped in there and took the edge of it.

 
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Her husband missed out on the support she got. Having a break and getting counselling through...

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Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 37
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No, I feel that [husband's name] felt that there was the focus on me, so I'd got the psychiatrist and the hospital, and as I'll say later on I did have friends too, and my family. But he felt very isolated and cut off, and he'd found it very hard going to work, juggling [son's name]'s care, and being worried about me. And also because I'd been through it before with the postnatal depression. He just felt that he couldn't go through it again, and he didn't have anyone to talk to, so in the end he did go and see a GP because he was concerned that he was going to get depressed as well. And he did pay for some private counselling sessions. And then after six months I came back... yes after six months I came back to live here, and he came back. And we also had some joint sessions, through Relate, to help us deal with the depression together, and the fall out as well on our relationship.

What were Relate like?

They were excellent.

How - in what way were they helpful to you?

They gave us both a chance to talk properly to one another about our experience of the depression. I think before we'd kind of tiptoed round one another really. We were just so scared of it, it just seemed like such a big thing. And I'd also felt very abandoned by him, and very let down, because he's left. But I was able to see through the sessions that... the pressure that he'd been under, and why he'd found it so difficult. And so we were able to talk through those very difficult emotions and feelings, and thoughts, in a safe environment.

How many sessions did it take to work through that?

We must have gone along for about six, and then we had a long break, and went back and had two more. But by then I think we felt that we were communicating that much better, that we didn't need a third person there anymore.
 
 

She is unsure how to tell her children about her depression, but may discuss it when they are...

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Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 41
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Have you talked to your children about the medication and your depression?

Isn't that strange, no. I don't tell them that I am taking antidepressants. I never have told them that I was diagnosed with depression. Actually never really thought about it. Occasionally they have asked me, you know, what are those tablets for when they see me taking my tablet every morning. But because I also take HRT because it, this period coincided or came shortly after I'd surgically induced menopause, I have always just said it is part of my treatment for replacing my hormones and that I've not sort of distinguished one tablet from the other. I just take the two each morning. 

So no, I don't know what other people do. Do they share it? Maybe when they are slightly older and I mean my oldest is now a medical student, so I daresay it will not be that much longer before he actually knows what fluoxetine is. And I am sure the other have possibly heard of Prozac because of sometimes the bad media cover that you get of it. But I don't think that they relate that to the medication that I take because it is not called Prozac on the box. It's just called fluoxetine. So I am not sure.

Last reviewed September 2017.

Last updated April 2015.

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