I have suffered clinical depression most of my life. I have also experienced illness and numerous surgeries. There is no pain that I have felt that is worse than the pain of depression. It is an all-encompassing darkness that is felt in the mind and the body like a sword piercing the brain and the heart.

As I write this, it is estimated that 15-20 percent of the population of the United States suffers some form of depression. That is roughly 50 million people. We know today that depression is a brain-caused disease. We have learned a language with which to discuss brain activity. We can talk about neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters.

Simply put, what happens in the brain causes suffering. This discovery has led to the use of medications for depression. Clinical depression comes and goes. We don’t know why. Medication helps for many, but not for all. Sometimes the depression breaks through the medication and once again we get stuck in the dark.

We feel guilt; we cannot control our minds. We hate this part of ourselves, this part that is out of our control. We get lost in shame. Many people hide their depression, isolating themselves rather that admitting that they are suffering. Many people never seek help.

Some do the unthinkable. They take their precious lives in an act of suicide. And then we say, how terrible, how sad, how awful. How could that happen?

Those of us who suffer this disease understand that there may come a time when all hope is lost. This life is no longer livable. We know, we understand, we get it!

People who suffer depression need a lot of support. They need kindness, love and compassion. This is not the usual result. I have lost friends because of my disease, which I do not hide.

When I have had a “physical” illness, the response is overwhelming: chicken soup, casseroles, cakes and cookies come to my door, courtesy of caring friends.

But when I suffer episodes of depression, no one rings my bell. Compassion for “physical” illness is strong. Compassion for depression is sometimes non-existent.

Is there a stigma associated with depression? You bet there is, still, after all these years of enlightenment. Of course, we must ask why? The answer is not readily forthcoming. I suppose it is related to fear. “Mental” stuff is scary stuff. “Mental” stuff is crazy stuff. Watch out, stay away, and so it goes.

Until we can become more aware and less ignorant about the disease named depression people will hide, people will suffer, people will die.

We can only hope that time will bring what is necessary to heal this disease. In the meantime, perhaps we can learn the art of being a healing presence: hold a hand, listen, and love.

Harriet C. Schultz, 77, has studied, taught and practiced Buddhism for 20 years . She currently teaches Buddhist philosophy at the Institute for Learning in Retirement in SaddleBrooke.