Mechanisms of Defense: Nepenthe Theory and Psychiatric Symptomatology

Article excerpt


Results of exploratory research on defense mechanisms and psychiatric symptomatology are reported about Black students enrolled in classes on the campus of one Historically Black College and University. Theoretical influences are twofold: ego mechanisms of defense conceptualized hierarchically and a culture-specific view of defense mechanism functioning. Exploratory hypotheses are: that defense style does exist, that an identifiable pattern in defense styles is consistent with nepenthe theory, and that defense styles will correlate with psychiatric symptoms. Instruments used were the Defense Style Questionnaire and the Derogatis ' Symptom Checklist 90-R. Defense style conceptualized as encompassing a hierarchical continuum from adaptive-to-maladaptive functioning was found to be a valid construct for these students. Also, the self-sacrificing defense style correlated inversely with symptom distress. Both theoretical influences received support, but the necessity of the culture-specific formulation was firmly implicated.


Life chances statistics (Goddard, 2006) may be used to suggest a chronic destruction of Black people in the United States (U.S.). Yet, despite vigorous heralding of the destroying (Hacker, 1970; Jones, 1992;Madhubuti, 1978; Walker, 1965; Williams, 1976; Yette, 1982), the social behavior of some Blacks in the U.S. may belie any awareness or conscious recognition of this seeming destruction. It might be surmised from this that some Black people do not see their continued existence as especially threatened, perhaps no more than that of their White counterparts. To account for this apparent contradiction, the present investigation of psychological defense mechanism theory and functions in Black college students was undertaken. College students are apropos for this study because historically and at present so much is expected of this population. They bear the burdens of inherited race, community, family, and individual expectations in a context of often hostile Caucasian hegemony (Semmes, 1995; Walters, 2003). Compared to the general Black population, the college subgroup may be in position to be more keenly aware of and directly impacted by an overall dire State of the Race (Kamara & van der Meer, 2004). Especially notable here are race-related stress (Johnson & Arbona, 2006), assaults on the sense of Black identity (Plummer, 1997), and other psychological assaults directed at Black people (Harrell, 1999; Obadele, 2003; Schiele, 2002). Indeed, there are assaults on the legitimacy of Black people's cultural and intellectual contributions (Carruthers, 1992) and on the concept of Blackness itself (Jones, 1997). As a result, high levels of violence and criminalization of Black youth (Schiele, 1 998; Wilson, 1990) are not only a reality, but aberrancy as well. Fordham and Ogbu (1966) implied that some students are affected by classroom behavior they identify as being demonstrated by White students or known as Whiteness. Indeed, the centrality of Whiteness in American social structure (Grillo & Wildman, 2000) is a challenge for many as it engenders deleteriousness (Schiele, 2005) as well as a mistrust of Whites and the social structure which often results in lowered expectations (Terrell, Terrell, & Miller, 1993). The dreadful educational, social health, criminal justice (Goddard, 2006), and mental health (Jones, 2000; Myers & King, 1980) statistics of Blacks are staggering. In protecting themselves psychologically as they negotiate this potentially daunting reality, defense mechanisms might figure prominently in Black college students' behavior.

Defense mechanism theories are numerous. There are two theoretical influences on the conceptualization of ego mechanisms of defense (defense mechanisms) used in this study. The first is a formulation of defense mechanisms arranged in an adaptive-maladaptive hierarchy, and second is a culture-specific theory of defense mechanism behavior that I used to generate my research hypotheses. …