Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

The Negative Self-Concept in Clinical Depression: A Discourse Analysis

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

The Negative Self-Concept in Clinical Depression: A Discourse Analysis

Article excerpt

Abstract

Traditional models of depression have received criticism for their individualistic approach that focuses on hypothetical, unobservable, inner states or processes and attempts to abstract these processes from the context of a person's everyday life experiences. In response to this criticism, the current research advances a contrasting discursive account of depression in which depression is investigated as a socially negotiated phenomenon. Eight women and eight men with a diagnosis of Major Depression were interviewed about their experiences of depression. The interviews were then discourse analyzed. Both similarities and differences in the way women and men talked about depression were observed; however, only similarities are reported in the current article. The discourse analysis shows that participants actively resisted taking blame for their depression and constructed themselves as worthy persons. The discrepancy of these results with traditional depression theory and research, in which depressed persons are described as inherently self-blaming, is discussed.

The negative self-concept is a fundamental construct in cognitive theories of depression, but one which has been more or less taken for granted. Far greater theoretical interest is centred on the information processing believed to emanate from, and be organized by, the cognitive self-structures of which the negative self-concept is part (e.g., Beck 1967, 1976). In cognitive theory, information processing is hypothesized to become temporarily faulty when the negative self-concept is activated. Once this activation has taken place, information that is self-devaluative is more rapidly and efficiently processed by the brain than would be the case under normal circumstances, causing depression to surface. Cognitive research on depression has similarly tended to focus on demonstrating and further elucidating distorted information processing in depressed persons and, in the case of cognitive therapy, on understanding how the dysfunctional information processing might be corrected. As a by-product of this research, support for the existence of a negative self-concept has been routinely concluded (e.g., Haaga, Dyck, & Ernst, 1991; Segal, 1988; Segal & Muran, 1993). However, while it is theorized that a negative self-concept becomes activated following an undesirable external event, research has neglected to be informative about the context of such an event. Indeed, the importance of the event is downplayed since it is seen not as a cause but as a trigger of depression (i.e., any one of hundreds of such events could serve as the trigger). To be sure, pathways for acquiring vulnerability to such triggers have been explored and reconstituted as personality traits (e.g., Neitzel & Harris, 1990), but the event itself is minimized. With emphasis thus directed toward mechanistic or individualistic processes and away from social context, several criticisms of cognitive theories of depression related to the undervaluing of context have emerged.

First, cognitive theories are seen by some as in need of refinement because they fail to reflect observations that the lives of depressed persons do in fact contain more "negative realities" than is the case for nondepressed persons (Krantz, 1985). For instance, depressed people have impoverished interpersonal relationships and experience more stressful life events than do nondepressed people. Instead of dismissing depressed people's negative observations about their lives as erroneous, Krantz recommends that theorists try to understand how the increased frequency of negative experiences which affect depressed persons' lives has led to a weakening of their positive beliefs about themselves.

Second, cognitive theories of depression have come under attack for making invisible the social context of women's lives (e.g., their lesser status, power, and resources) which may account for the higher prevalence of women among the depressed. …

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