Women with depression book disappoints

By  Maria Di Paolo, Catholic Register Special
  • November 23, 2009
{mosimage}Spirit and Dust: Meditations for Women with Depression by Maura Hanrahan (ACTA Publications, 176 pages, softcover, $15).

We use many different words to describe depression: despair, blue funk, desolation, desperation, despondency, distress, the dumps, ennui, melancholy, misery, sadness, the blahs, bleakness, dispiritedness, hopelessness, the blues — the list goes on. Winston Churchill called it “the black dog.”

Being sad, miserable or feeling down is part of our everyday vocabulary.  Directly or indirectly, depression affects everyone at some point. However, there is a world of difference between normal feelings of sadness and melancholy and the bleak, black vortex that engulfs people who suffer major depressive episodes. 

Clinical depression is surprisingly common. Rates vary depending on where you look, but the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports rates of depression of 10 to 15 per cent for men and 10 to 25 per cent for women. Health Canada quotes rates of 11 per cent and 16 per cent. These numbers mean that anywhere from one in 10 to one in four people in Canada will suffer a depressive episode during their lifetime.

{sa 0879463961}Even if we ourselves never suffer from the prolonged periods of misery and hopelessness that are symptomatic of depression, we cannot escape the fact we are relating on a regular basis with family members, friends and colleagues who are, or have been, clinically depressed. Understanding the devastating impact depression can have on a person is an important step toward being able to provide support and assistance, when needed, to those close to us.

Maura Hanrahan is an anthropologist and historian in Newfoundland who has suffered through depression. Spirit and Dust is a collection of Hanrahan’s meditations on depression aimed specifically at women. 

I approached this book hoping it would provide new understanding and insight into this important, difficult and sensitive subject. Unfortunately, Spirit and Dust is a frustrating disappointment for a number of reasons.

Spirit and Dust consists of a collection of brief meditations, each followed by a short quotation from a female spiritual writer. As I was reading, I kept wishing Hanrahan had provided some reflection on the link between the meditation and the quote that followed. What did the quote mean for her? Why did she select it? What significance did the quoted author have for Hanrahan? 

Without some sort of context, the quotes become a distraction. The effect is like reading two separate books whose pages have been shuffled together like a deck of cards.

Hanrahan seems prone to hyperbole. This results in some vague, overly broad claims. She states that women experience depression at a rate twice that experienced by men, and that this is true “all over the world.” However, the statistics that I quoted above, which are easily accessible, do not unequivocally support her statement.

Women may indeed experience depression at a greater rate then men, but some research suggests that rates of depression for men may be understated because depressed men may experience different symptoms. Furthermore, men may not admit to feeling depressed or may not seek help as readily. 

This does not mean that a book on depression aimed at women is not of great value, but broad generalizations are not needed to justify Hanrahan’s premise.

At one point Hanrahan observes, “depression may well be one of the worst illnesses a human being can experience.” I question whether such a comment would be convincing to someone who has experienced, or witnessed, the ravaging effects of senile dementia or a debilitating neurological disease. Depression feels like the worst illness in the world when one is in the midst of it, but it is treatable and people do recover. 

The wisdom and perspective Hanrahan eventually attains — her last serious depressive episode was more than four years ago — seems lacking in such overblown claims.

Some of Hanrahan’s best insights are actually at the very end, in the epilogue, where she ponders why she became depressive. Was it her family history? Was there a connection between depression and another physical ailment she suffers from? She thinks there may be. Were there other reasons? Her comments are thought-provoking, but there is too little too late to engage the reader.

(Di Paolo is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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