Background The aim of this study was to determine public attitudes towards patients with depression and the influence of perception and causal attributions on social distance towards individuals suffering from depression in urban areas. Methods This study was carried out with a representative sample in Istanbul which is the biggest metropolis in Turkey. Seven hundred and seven subjects completed the public survey form which consisted of ten items screening the demographic features and health status of the participants, and 32 items rating attitudes towards depression. Results The respondents' attitudes towards depression were very negative and nearly half of the subjects perceived people with depression as dangerous. More than half of the subjects stated that they would not marry a person with depression, and nearly half of the subjects stated that they would not rent their house to a person with depression. One-quarter of the subjects stated that depressive patients should not be free in the community. The subjects who considered depression as a disease and who believed that weakness of personality and social problems cause depression had negative attitudes towards depression. Conclusions In Istanbul, people recognise depression well, but their attitudes towards it are fairly negative. The urban public has unfavourable attitudes towards depression and a tendency to isolate patients from the society. Notwithstanding the high prevalence, there is still considerable stigmatisation associated with depression.