Mass Media and notions about women’s depressive illness


In women’s magazines and health section of the daily paper, there is a shift toward the “medicalization” of deviation from women’s traditional roles, and the increasing description of mental illness in emotional, not medical, terms. Men’s depressive illness remained medical or psychiatric. In popular newspaper and magazine articles about depressive illness, description of women were that of the stereotype of the woman as the mother and wife. White, middle-aged women targets’ problems with marriage, motherhood, or menstruation replaced DSM-derived terms as indicators of the need for psychopharmaceuticals.

These articles were analyzed using established coding methods.The popular articles about depression from a mix of American magazines and newspapers spanning the years 1985–2000 were found by using keywords: ‘‘antidepressant,’’ ‘‘Prozac,’’ or ‘‘SSRI”.

In an interview with the first author this is among others things what he said about the results of this research:

“It’s not that the media are doing a bad job covering these issues, but rather that gender stereotypes are pervading the way we talk about mental illness – for better or for worse,” says Metzl, an assistant professor of psychiatry and director of the Program in Culture, Health and Medicine at the U-M Medical School and an assistant professor of Women’s Studies.

“ Stereotypes are, of course, often based in lived experience,” he continues. “But at the same time, many articles implied that people who don’t adhere to these stereotypes need to be medicated.”

Why is this important?

Because it makes clear that depression is a serious diagnosis, to be looked at from the context and diagnosed by a professional.

For example, a woman with undiagnosed depression may recognize some of her own symptoms in a magazine article about another woman whose depression interfered with her marriage, and who got help from medication. But a woman whose marriage is on the rocks for reasons other than depression may read the same article and perceive that the medication could help her, when in fact it probably won’t.

So female doctors are not alone.
Not only women doctors are stereotyped in medical journals.

In pictures in the 2 largest medical journals in Sweden over a period of 1 year the majority (64%) of women doctors were dressed in white coats. The majority of male doctors (59%) appeared in civil dress.

The next post in the series Mass Media and Psychiatry is about ECT in mass media and will be posted Monday August 18th.
J Metzl (2004). Assessing the impact of SSRI antidepressants on popular notions of women’s depressive illness Social Science & Medicine, 58 (3), 577-584 DOI: 10.1016/S0277-9536(03)00369-1