It was the way he said it -- straightforward, unapologetic. "My wife has depression. She's had it for many, many years and we have told many, many people about it. It is not a family secret. It is very easily controlled with proper medication, just as my blood pressure is sometimes under control with proper medication."

Here was the nation's premier hero, Colin L. Powell, who had just announced he was not going to run for the presidency. A reporter asked whether dirty politics and the reports about his wife's depression had been a factor. "No," replied the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And then he slipped in a bold message to the millions of American families that are touched by depression. "I hope that people . . . who think they might be suffering from depression make a beeline to the doctor, because it is something that can be dealt with very easily."

With these words, the general became a kind of medical ambassador for the mental health community, which has been trying to take the mystery and stigma out of psychiatric disorders and change public attitudes toward getting help. The refrain is simple: Depression is just an illness like hypertension or diabetes. It has a biological basis that causes alterations in brain chemistry. It can be effectively treated with medication, the way high blood pressure is managed with antihypertensive drugs and diabetes is controlled by insulin.

Powell's attitude was as important as his words. The general wasn't fazed a bit by his wife's illness. It was just part of their life together -- he had hypertension and she had depression -- His & Hers medical conditions. "The nonhysterical, nonpatronizing, nonpitying quality {of his statement} was very impressive," says Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "I thought it was just terrific."

That's a long way from the dark ages in public attitudes when senator Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) was forced to give up the Democratic Party's vice presidential nomination in 1972 after it was revealed he had been treated for depression.

A long way too from the Just Buck-Up-Yourself 1980s. As Nancy Reagan told "Family Circle" in 1981: "I feel that getting psychiatric treatment means that you yourself are not really trying to get hold of yourself. It's sloughing off your own responsibilities."

A long way even from the 1990 election in Florida when Democrat Lawton Chiles won the governorship after admitting he'd been taking antidepressants and Prozac politics became an issue in the campaign.

Today, as the Powells make clear, getting treated for depression is a nonissue. In the past five years, the Big D has become a disease that has "come out" -- thanks in part to a massive public education campaign launched by drug companies and health officials, as well as personal accounts of high-profile celebrities.

Since 1990, the physicians that runs National Depression Screening Day, which occurs in October, have interviewed about 200,000 people, who volunteered to be screened. About 70 percent were found to have symptoms of depression.

This may seem high, but according to government estimates, more than 17 million Americans suffer depression every year. The diagnosis includes manic-depressive illness, major depression and a milder chronic depression called dysthymia.

Most episodes last six to nine months and the illness tends to recur. "It can be very disabling if left untreated," says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Douglas Jacobs, who runs the national depression screening project. The message is that, yes, your depression may go away after six months or so, but if you don't get treatment, "you could lose your job, you could lose your spouse, you could lose your life," says Jacobs.

Yet less than half of people with depression seek treatment, Jacobs points out. This is despite the evidence that treatment can be effective, with 80 percent of patients seeing improvement within a year, according to government estimates.

As the general said: Just as my blood pressure is sometimes under control with proper medication.

Trouble is, the depression-hypertension analogy can only go so far. As anyone who has had depression -- or loved someone with depression -- knows, having "bipolar disorder" and "dysthymia" is not just like having high blood pressure.

To begin with, there is no biomedical test to make the diagnosis or measure the impact of treatment. Most people with depression benefit from a combination of psychotherapy and medication, although some do well with either drugs or therapy alone. But it can be hard to find the right therapeutic fit, and some people don't respond to treatment at all.

What's more, the signs and symptoms of a psychiatric disease have to do with personality and feelings and relationships. Does Mom stay in her room because she's depressed or because she doesn't love me, wonders the child? Does a husband withdraw or lash out because of an illness or because of a change of heart, wonders a wife?

"In a social and psychological sense, {depression} is different. There's no question this is a ghastly illness for relationships," says Jamison, who is also the author of "An Unquiet Mind," an account of her own manic-depression.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Powells to mental health is to show how couples can deal with depression together. The depression- hypertension analogy, for all its shortcomings, is still a way to foster mutual support and respect for each others' illnesses. The general's campaign for the presidency may have been short-lived, but the scene from his marriage endures: His & Hers in sickness and in health.