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OBJECTIVE: To investigate the attitudes of the general public towards depression before the Defeat Depression Campaign of the Royal Colleges of Psychiatrists and General Practitioners; these results form the baseline to assess the change in attitudes brought about by the campaign. DESIGN: Group discussions generated data for initial qualitative research. The quantitative survey comprised a doorstep survey of 2003 people in 143 places around the United Kingdom. RESULTS: The lay public in general seemed to be sympathetic to those with depression but reluctant to consult. Most (1704 (85%)) believed counselling to be effective but were against antidepressants. Many subjects (1563 (78%)) regarded antidepressants as addictive. CONCLUSIONS: Although people are sympathetic towards those with depression, they may project their prejudices about depression on to the medical profession. Doctors have an important role in educating the public about depression and the rationale for antidepressant treatment. In particular, patients should know that dependence is not a problem with antidepressants.