Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Metaphors in the Talk of "Depressed" Women in Psychotherapy

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Metaphors in the Talk of "Depressed" Women in Psychotherapy

Article excerpt

Abstract

Variations in how we describe, explain, and treat "depression" and in who is labeled "depressed" attest to the significance of the social-historical contexts in which our under standings and practices are based. A prevalent, modern-day (Western) conception of "depression" is as a gendered (primarily female), devalued condition characterized by a discourse of the deficient self. In an effort to learn more about the particular forms of this discourse, the metaphors used by 10 "depressed" women to talk to their psychotherapists about their "selves" in relation to their perceived difficulties were studied. Two broad cultural imperatives were constructed from these metaphors: (1) Don't be too mothering and (2) Don't be too child-like. At the core of these two imperatives were messages about the importance of autonomy, for both oneself and others. This valuing of autonomy can be clearly located at the heart of 20[Symbol Not Transcribed]th-century Western ideals.

Stanley Jackson's (1986) account of the history of melancholia and depression from Hippocratic to modern times traces what he described as "the variations in a remarkable consistency" (p. 27). According to Jackson (1986), this pattern of change within constancy is evident in the clinical description of what has been labeled "melancholia" or, more recently, "depression," in the explanatory theories or schemes that have been proposed, and in the treatment practices that have been employed. Although those features that Jackson described as having remained constant (e.g., the felt sense of sadness, the role of biological influences, and the focus on restoring equilibrium or balance) might tell us something about what we consider to be the core of our concepts of "melancholia" and "depression," the variations in our descriptions, theories, and practices tell us much more about the social and historical contexts in which these concepts have been embedded. One cannot fail to be intrigued by the differences in social-historical contexts that have given rise to such diverse explanatory theories as an excess of black bile, a reduction or lowering of nervous energy, or disturbances in psychological development, and to such diverse interventions as evacuative procedures, dietary remedies, or moral and psychological therapies.

One variation not emphasized by Jackson is the gendered nature of melancholia and of depression. As noted by several scholars (e.g., Gilman, 1988; Radden, 1987; Schiesari, 1992), less severe forms of melancholia in the late medieval and Renaissance periods were thought to be afflictions of the passive, sensitive, intellectually and morally superior male. Artists, noblemen, and intellectuals were considered especially at risk because of their heightened sensibilities. During this time, melancholia was seen as a passive illness, as associated with "feminine" attributes, and the source of the malady was frequently labeled as "love sickness" (Gilman, 1988). However, when the origin of "love sickness" shifted over time from the mind (the highest sense) to the genitalia (which were controlled by reflexes), the social status of "love sickness" also shifted from the nobleman to the woman, from what Gilman (1988) described as "the top of the social ladder to [the] bottom" (p. 100). Schiesari (1992) extended this analysis of the evolution and subsequent demise of melancholia and the corresponding rise of the modern-day disorder of depression by differentiating "the symbolically accredited category of melancholia and the devalued status of depression" (p. 17). She proposed that when this condition was considered desirable it was associated with creativity, privilege, and men; when it was considered undesirable, it was stereotyped as feminine and common. According to Schiesari (1992), "the melancholic of the past was a 'great man'; the stereotypical depressive of today is a woman" (p. 95).

Without wanting to deny that, as suggested by Jackson (1986), there may be some very general conceptual continuities to the notions of "melancholia," "love sickness," and "depression," the focus in this paper is on how the gendered, devalued condition we now call "depression" is constituted in the lives of those most likely to be labeled as experiencing this condition. …

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