A dif­fer­ent kind of de­pres­sion

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - Weekend Extra - By Jan­ice Kennedy

OTTAWA — For some­one who spends so much time pok­ing through muf­fled lay­ers of sad­ness, Va­lerie Whif­fen has a re­mark­ably sunny smile. This is not what you ex­pect from the au­thor of the what is billed as the world’s first pop­u­lar study of fe­male de­pres­sion.

The Ottawa psy­chol­o­gist, who has for years been re­search­ing de­pres­sion in women, has just pro­duced A Se­cret Sad­ness: The Hid­den Re­la­tion­ship Pat­terns That Make Women De­pressed. The first book to deal ex­clu­sively with the sub­ject, it is pub­lished by Cal­i­for­nia-based New Har­bin­ger Publi­ca­tions ($24.95), the re­spected com­pany that turns out best­selling self-help books about psy­chol­ogy and health. And it paints pic­tures that are fre­quently bleak.

But as she talks about the is­sues at the heart of the book — what causes de­pres­sion in women, why it’s dif­fer­ent from de­pres­sion in men, how it man­i­fests it­self — Whif­fen smiles of­ten and eas­ily. That may be be­cause she’s never lost sight of the hope that il­lu­mi­nates the dark tun­nel, the hope that is the sub­text of both A Se­cret Sad­ness and her work as a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist.

It is Whif­fen’s be­lief that de­pres­sion in women is cru­cially re­lated to their re­la­tion­ships. Help­ing them deal with those re­la­tion­ships through in­ter­per­sonal ther­apy, she says, can be a key to hap­pi­ness — or at least to less suf­fer­ing.

A psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ottawa (though she di­vides her time be­tween Ottawa and the Van­cou­ver Is­land home she shares with her hus­band and son), Whif­fen teaches both un­der­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate stu­dents.

Since 1988, she has also main­tained a private prac­tice, serv­ing clients who are mostly women, mostly suf­fer­ing de­pres­sion. That has been her in­ter­est and aca­demic fo­cus for as long as she can re­mem­ber, mainly be­cause she feels it has been an un­ad­dressed area.

A fem­i­nist al­ways in­ter­ested in women’s is­sues (she helped set up one of the first rape cri­sis cen­tres as an un­der­grad at the Univer­sity of Guelph), she be­gan notic­ing the glar­ing lack of spe­cific at­ten­tion to women when she was in grad school at Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity in the 1980s.

There was a bias, she says, to con­sider the male as the norm. All the re­search was done on men, and men’s ex­pe­ri­ence was the nor­mal barom­e­ter against which women were eval­u­ated.

“And I found my­self al­ways say­ing, ‘Yes, but it’s dif­fer­ent to be a wo­man. You can’t say that some­how we’re de­fec­tive be­cause we don’t do what men do.”’

And so the 53-year-old psy­chol­o­gist — who loves her hus­band, dotes on her teenaged son and ad­mits to an af­fec­tion for the mu­sic of Joe Strum­mer and the fiction of Matt Co­hen — has spent her pro­fes­sional life spe­cial­iz­ing in the psy­chol­ogy of de­pressed women. Hers is not a crowded field.

“In the de­pres­sion area — I find this fas­ci­nat­ing — we’ve known for 20 years that women around the world are twice as likely to get de­pressed as men. But none of the ma­jor the­o­ries of de­pres­sion have tried to ex­plain why that would be the case. It’s al­most like it’s in­vis­i­ble.”

But it shouldn’t be.

“Women and men have dif­fer­ent cul­tures and life ex­pe­ri­ences, and they re­ally shouldn’t be com­pared to one an­other be­cause, in many ways, we’re go­ing in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions at cer­tain times of life.”

A third of women’s de­pres­sion, she says, arises from “im­me­di­ate in­ter­per­sonal sit­u­a­tions and stres­sors that oc­cur in that con­text.”

Be­sides that, there are the es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble times, like preg­nancy and child­birth, that open the doors to all kinds of things long stuffed away.

“There’s some­thing about hav­ing a baby,” says Whif­fen, “that just takes us and whacks us be­tween the eyes about our own fam­ily ex­pe­ri­ences.”

She con­cedes that her pro­fes­sion is be­gin­ning to show some will­ing­ness to ac­cept the idea that fe­male de­pres­sion is dif­fer­ent. And she points out that phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies, in recog­ni­tion of this, are start­ing to con­duct sep­a­rate drug tri­als on women.

But she’s still a pi­o­neer. That is why Cal­i­for­nia psy­chol­o­gist Matt McKay, who founded New Har­bin­ger in 1973, ap­proached her at a con­fer­ence some years ago and sug­gested she write a book for him on the sub­ject. A Se­cret Sad­ness is the re­sult.

Its pub­li­ca­tion by New Har­bin­ger, which has pro­duced such best­sellers as The Anx­i­ety and Pho­bia Work­book (re­peat­edly rec­om­mended by doc­tors and other pro­fes­sion­als and now in its fourth edi­tion), has guar­an­teed its au­thor pub­lish­ing re­spectabil­ity in a field that is new to her. Un­til now, Whif­fen, who ed­its and peer-re­views ma­te­rial for pro­fes­sional jour­nals, has pro­duced only schol­arly ma­te­rial, writ­ing more than 40 jour­nal ar­ti­cles and co-au­thor­ing a book on cou­ple and fam­ily ther­apy.

With A Se­cret Sad­ness, most of which she wrote dur­ing a 2004 sab­bat­i­cal, her tone is de­cid­edly more down-to-earth.

“I felt that I was speak­ing to real women. It wasn’t an aca­demic thing at all.”

The book is fre­quently anec­do­tal, nar­rat­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences and ther­a­peu­tic jour­ney of three women (their iden­ti­ties well dis­guised) who sought Whif­fen’s help with their de­pres­sion. The women, all very dif­fer­ent from each other, rep­re­sent a spec­trum of de­pres­sion types, symp­toms and re­sponses.

But A Se­cret Sad­ness is more. Whif­fen also gives her read­ers an ac­ces­si­ble ed­u­ca­tion in the is­sues, while of­fer­ing them prac­ti­cal guide­lines for ba­sic self-anal­y­sis.

The “se­cret” in the sad­ness Whif­fen an­a­lyzes refers to the wil­ful blind­ness some women adopt in lieu of fac­ing the truth.

“Th­ese things that are mak­ing us de­pressed are ac­tu­ally se­crets we’re keep­ing from our­selves — be­cause some part of us feels that if we look at them, it will be dev­as­tat­ing. In a way, it’s like trad­ing off be­ing dev­as­tated for be­ing de­pressed.”

Whif­fen prac­tises in­ter­per­sonal ther­apy, and its dy­nam­ics are what drive her book.

“The idea of the ther­apy is that you iden­tify the prob­lem­atic in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tion­ships,” she ex­plains. “You work with the wo­man to try to iden­tify how she feels in that re­la­tion­ship and how it fits into her de­pres­sion. Does the re­la­tion­ship make her feel de­fec­tive or un­wor­thy or unlov­able? Then you try to get her to ei­ther change the re­la­tion­ship or change the way she feels about it.”

It doesn’t work that way with men. Al­though there has not been much re­search com­par­ing wom- en’s and men’s de­pres­sion, Whif­fen says she can see some of the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences.

“In my clin­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, when I’ve seen de­pressed men, it’s much more fo­cused on iden­tity, achieve­ment, hav­ing a strong com­pe­tent sense of self as a ma­ture male. If a man’s de­pressed, fre­quently it’s be­cause some­thing has hap­pened that’s been a real blow to his sense of iden­tity as a man. He’s lost his job or ex­pe­ri­enced a se­ri­ous set­back in his ca­reer. Or maybe he’s com­ing to terms with the idea that he’s not go­ing to be the big suc­cess that he thought he was go­ing to be.”

With women, the dark clouds gather dif­fer­ently — and, as Whif­fen’s book sug­gests, have dif­fer­ent so­cial im­pli­ca­tions.

“That doesn’t mean that women should walk away from re­la­tion­ships, but only that they should find a bal­ance in their re­la­tion­ships be­tween what they need, and what other peo­ple need from them.” She smiles. “And I would rec­om­mend that for men as well.”


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