A Portrait of Depression in the Mass Media, Gender Influences.

Gender Portrait of Depression

This is the second post about mass media and psychiatry. The best and most informative news stories about depression are interviews with lay persons that suffer of have suffered this illness. Little attention has been paid to personal life stories about depression and to a gender perspective. The studies that have been done have focused primarily on women. The gendered representation of experiences with depression by men and women in three major Swedish newspapers showed differences and similarities between men and women.

The women’s stories were more detailed, relational, emotionally oriented, and embodied. The portrayal of men was less emotional and expressive, and described a more dramatic onset of depression, reflecting hegemonic patterns of masculinity.

More precisely:

  • Only sparse information was presented about the men’s personal and private lives, whereas women’s backgrounds were portrayed in a more rich and colorful way, with explicit details about both their private and working lives
  • Both the men and the women in the newspaper articles about depression appear on the
    surface to be successful high performers with functioning social networks
  • In the stories women also expressed feelings of being lost and not knowing who they were and what they wanted. They did not feel that they fitted in. Moreover stories of women illustrated a hidden inside, where true feelings were concealed beneath an intact exterior or facade (the crackling facade). In contrast men were portrayed as paying less attention to their inner feelings
  • Differences between men and women on the narratives of how the depression started and developed. Among the men, loss of control was associated with the subcategories of “sudden onset,” “physical collapse,” “confusion,” “vulnerability,” and “passivity,” and among women, the depression started and developed with the somewhat contrasting subcategories of “insidious onset,” “embodied feelings,” and “shame and guilt.”
  • In the newspaper stories men had few explanations for the depression. For men the only stated reasons for succumbing to depression seemed to be work- and stress-related. Most stories of women had plenty of explanations. The explanations involved a large set of reasons, which were sometimes interwoven:
    • work overload and stress, sometimes caused by high demands
    • seasonal changes and dysfunctional relationships as causal factors
    • biological or physiological factors were commonly referred to in relation the expalnation of the depression. These factors included reproduction (e.g., menstrual and postpartum depression) and hormone levels
    • Stories of depression in women were also sometimes situated by these women within a larger medical context through references to other ailments and illnesses (e.g., eating disorders, dysphoric syndrome, psychosis, and manic depression) and to the use of various medications (e.g., painkillers, sedatives, anxiolytics, sleeping pills, and contraceptives). Some women also located the reasons for their depression within themselves, referring to specific personality types

In contemporary societies mass media such as newspapers are important providers of information about depression. Information about depression in the mass media might influence behavior related to various aspects of health and illness. These stories might guide other sufferers of depression, be of advise or bring hope and de-stigmatize depression.

The researchers analyzed 26 eligible articles from three Swedish newspapers using qualitative
content analysis.

The material included 14 personal stories, all presented in full-page articles; four celebrity stories; and eight letters to the editor. Three of the articles contained two different accounts, with the result that we could study 29 different individuals’ stories of depression. Twenty one of these
individuals were women and eight were men.

Why is this important?

This study not only shows that certain traditional gender norms still persist in mass media representation of men and women suffering from depression, it also challenges some of these gender norms. For instance the presentation of men as passive and vulnerable, as well as the fact that the men expressed a sense of loss of control with few attempts to regain it. This should be viewed as an expansion of positive masculine qualities. Negative stereotypes such as violence are not mentioned in these stories. Such stories might be particularly important when those presented as suffering from depression are men, for men’s stories are not as frequently shared. New media such as the Internet can also be used as communication and education tools for people affected by stigmatizing illnesses.

What do you think, let me know in the comments, is “news” about depression in the newspapers good news?

The next post on mass media and depression in women will be next Friday, August the 15th.

The previous post in this series was on Mass Media and Mental Illness

C. Bengs, E. Johansson, U. Danielsson, A. Lehti, A. Hammarstrom (2008). Gendered Portraits of Depression in Swedish Newspapers Qualitative Health Research, 18 (7), 962-973 DOI: 10.1177/1049732308319825