A different kind of depression
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.”