Contemplate with me, for a moment, the significance of this fact: With the overwhelming dominance of the construct of depression, both in therapy offices and in everyday conversation, we have reduced an entire wing of the spectrum of emotional experiences to one word: Depressed.
Language matters. As a therapist, when a patient presents seeking therapy for depression, I want to understand his or her experience with as much nuance as possible. I want more words, not fewer.
Sadness. Malaise. Despondence. Loneliness. Hurt. Pain. Grief. Trauma. Feeling unattached and unloved. Not being loved. Lacking caring people. Wanting and not finding affection. All these descriptors seek to capture experiences too often lumped into the word depression.
I work with a young man who came to therapy for help with loneliness. Seemingly everywhere he turns someone wants to toss the word depression at him. His mom thinks he’s depressed, his roommate thinks he’s depressed, his doctor suggested he was depressed. “You know what?” he told me, “I just don’t feel depressed. I’m lonely.”
On the other hand, another person might use the word depression to articulate the experience and seek out a therapist for it. Perhaps it’s not that a diagnosis of depression is incorrect inasmuch as that it is imprecise or, perhaps, insufficient.
Gloria Steinem, in her new book, My Life on the Road, describes her mother’s emotional state — which included frequent psychiatric hospitalizations, an addiction to Valium and the inability to hold a job. Her mother’s “condition” was variously described by her doctors and therapists in the parlance of the moment (“nervous breakdown,” “manic-depressive,” and later “major depressive disorder“).
For Steinem, none of these labels fit. Steinem, a pioneering feminist, arrives in her book at a different conclusion: her mother’s spirit was broken.
A broken spirit. Is there room for such an assessment in our lexicon of pain and suffering? Shouldn’t there be?
On Eskimos, language and therapy for depression
I’m told the Inuit people have more than 50 words for snow. You’ve likely heard that, too. It’s a fact often cited to make the case that language expands to mirror the breadth and nuances of the experiences of a people: Eskimos have a good deal of snow and therefore a broad array of words to describe it.
We have a good deal of pain and sadness these days. There are many kinds of suffering. And yet Steinem’s offering to the lexicon, “her spirit was broken,” seems unwelcomed in a context that favors the more clinical “depression”. The words “nervous breakdown,” “manic-depressive,” and “major depressive disorder” seem somehow legitimate, whereas Steinem’s words are too easily dismissed by therapists who treat depression, perhaps, as a literary indulgence rather than a legitimate descriptor