Lecture 10, March 17: Mental Health and Illness: On Student Depression
1. Recap: Metaphor and Relativism/Universalism
Last class, I have told you a story which went somewhat like this: In a time before time, before
the existence of society, there was only one woman and one man. The woman lived in fear of the
man who preyed on her, subjugated her and abused her. The woman was unable to flee from that
situation or change it because it was in her nature and her life’s goal to love man, be him a good
wife and a good mother to his children. But the man couldn’t respect the woman, for it was in his
nature to hunt for what he loved and he could not hunt what came to him on its own free will.
One day woman found a way out of this dilemma: She accepted being seen as a prey, and started
to make herself as attractive as she can be. She adorned her body with bright colors, she showed
her legs and her buttocks, and she pretended to be fearless and disinterested. By doing so, she
transformed herself from being a prey to being a hunter, a hunter; her body had become a bait
and her speech and movements became a trap. The man was tricked and went into the trap. He
fell in love with the woman, married her and had children with her.All the time he kept thinking
how lucky he was and how good a hunter that he had captured this attractive prey for himself.
But the woman knew that it was actually she who was the hunter and that the man was the prey.
She also knew that she had to live with that knowledge, that the man mustn’t know that he had
been tricked. If he would find out that her real nature was to be loving and caring, her spell
would be broken; he would withdraw from her and start mistreating her again. Therefore, the
first woman had to continue to deny her own nature and to be subservient to man.
The first woman and the first man bore many children and their children again had children, and
from generation to generation the women had to pretend as if they really didn’t love the men.
This is why women are the way they are and this is why men are the way they are. I have
finished my story.
When you hear it like this for the first time, you might think that this a story told among an
indigenous group in some exotic place, perhaps in “Melanesia” (which is where the Trobrianders
live). Interestingly, the people who told the story have indeed called the woman “Melanie”, and
we could refer to them as “Melanesians”, or as “Melanies”. But as you know, this was not a story
told by some far-off, exotic people, not a myth recorded by an ethnographer and published in a
scientific book. Rather, it was the mythical message communicated through a self-help book for
1 dating called The Rules, written by two women, Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. We have seen
that the text of the book contained a set of familiar metaphors and that these metaphors were
used in such a way to produce the myth of the transformation of woman from prey into hunter.
We have also seen how this myth “makes sense” in reference to a social and cultural context. The
function of the myth, we have said is to declare a contradiction in contemporary women’s lives
as natural, as inherent in the nature of women and men. This contradiction lies in the equally
important value placed by society on professional career and traditional gender roles. It was said
that this double emphasis puts women in a double bind, that is the necessity to choose between
two mutually exclusive, yet equally important alternatives. The myth of The Rules confirms this
reality through two interdependent movements: by declaring the contradiction as grounded in
female and male nature, and by presenting a way how to solve the contradiction “naturally”, that
is by presenting a solution that conforms to nature. In this sense, The Rules can be said on the
one hand to refer to an existing cultural reality, that is: a universe of meaning in which people
act as if it was natural that women (but not men) have both successful professional careers and
are fully devoted, “traditional” wives and mothers; on the other hand, they can be understood as
a contribution to produce cultural reality by giving a specific, new interpretation of the familiar,
taken for granted reality that they refer to. The already existing reality is embodied in the
familiar metaphors The Rules use to compose their message (“Love is a hunt” – “Man is a
hunter”); the new reality they suggest can be seen in the transformations which they introduce
through their use of these metaphors (“Love is a hunt” – “Woman is a hunter”).
Through this kind of analysis of the meaning of a text, in particular of its metaphorical structure,
we can catch a glimpse of how culture as experienced reality is produced in an ongoing process
of communication, of encoding and decoding messages which contain suggestions pertaining to
the definition of a situation, a phenomenon, a field of activity.
What I have tried to do in the beginning of the lecture through using an explicitly mythical
language was to create an effect of alienation of our own culture, to make it strange for
ourselves. Such an articulation in a different, alien idiom might be the one way to actually adopt
that specific stance that I have called the “anthropological perspective”. It would succeed in
achieving this perspective to the degree in which it enables us to see ourselves actually as
“telling a mythical story” to each other, and as believing in its truth. Or, if we switch the
2 direction of the anthropological gaze to its usual orientation, to the degree in which we are able
to see other peoples “love magic” as essentially similar to our dating practices.
2. Relativism and Universalism inAnthropology
To say that our experience of reality is structured according to a system of metaphors we live by,
as we did in our analysis of The Rules confronts us with one of the most fundamental and central
problems of cultural anthropology, the relationship between relativism and universalism of man’s
cultural existence (for lecture text, see lecture 8, page 11 – 15).
3 3. PsychologicalAnthropology
Today we are going to talk about mental illness as a cultural phenomenon (which also means that
we have to talk about mental health, since illness can only be defined complementary to health,
even if implicitly); in particular we are going to apply our understanding of culture as
communication, and of reality as communicatively produced to student depression. This leads us
into the domain of psychological anthropology, which is the sub-discipline of anthropology
which engages with the problem of relativism and universalism in the domain of the individual
self and its relationship to historical, social and cultural contexts. To quote form a recent reader,
psychological anthropology can be defined as:
“the study of the behavior, experience and development of individuals in relation to the
institutions and ideologies of their socio-cultural environment, across all populations of the
human species.” (Levine (ed.) 2010 PsychologicalAnthropology).
In his introduction to the reader, Levine lists three types of questions asked by psychological
anthropology: 1. Questions of Variation; 2. Questions of Ontogeny; 3. Questions of Change.
Questions of Variation: “Do human populations vary in their psychological make-up and if so,
One example would be that of a “cultural personality”, or, to use a mostly discredited term, a
“national character”. Afamous example of the so-called “culture and personality” school in
American Anthropology is the study of Balinese personality by Margaret Mead and Gregory
Bateson. Balinese culture discourages public display of personal emotions, one should always
“keep one’s face” in social interaction. How does that relate to psychology of individuals? Do
they “feel less” or “differently”, or in different situations?
Questions of Ontogeny: “What factors in individual development account for such variations?
What is the course of psychological development in childhood and throughout the life-cycle in
human populations?” (2)
An example again from Balinese context: Bateson observed that mothers will provoke their
babies to playful behavior in which the baby gets wilder and wilder, and then before the
interaction reaches a climax, she will suddenly turn away from the child and ignore it. In case
you find that cruel – many people would say the same thing about the low frequency of touch
between mother/father and infant in Western culture.
4 Questions of Change: “How are the developmental pathways and adult motivations of
individuals related to the macrosocial forces of institutional stability and change?” (2). In the
Balinese case again, Clifford Geertz, the great cultural anthropologist has connected the cultural
tabooing of emotional display with the Balinese social system (caste) and the Balinese
conception of time. Basically, he says, the living Balinese are supposed to present themselves as
re-incarnation of Gods (phases in an infinite circle of reincarnations). The social order is
supposed to be portrayed as timeless and unchanging. Therefore it makes sense to de-emphasize
everything that reminds one of change, what is individual about individuals.
4. “The Broken Generation”: On Student Depression
In its Sept. 10, 2012 edition, the cover of the Canadian News magazine MacLean’s titled The
Broken Generation. The title announces a “crisis on campus” and explains further: “Ashocking
number of Canadian students feel depressed, even suicidal. Why our best and brightest are so
troubled.” The theme is illustrated by the cover photograph showing two faces representing the
population of Canadian students. The faces indeed look bright, but also wear a sad to vacant
expression, depicting one of the visible manifestations of depression (for those of you are
interested: this is a metonomy, a double metonomy even: one student is taken for all male/female
students and the face is taken for the whole person). The characterization of the current student
generation as “broken” also finds an immediate echo in the photo on the title page: the faces of
the two persons are cut in half, depicting them literally as “not whole”, “fragmented”. Finally,
the fact that one person on the cover is male the other female tells us in advance that this crisis
affects the whole student body, not just or predominantly one gender. The photo also tells us that
ethnicity is not considered as a factor in the article.
The article states the problem its first column: in recent years there has been an exponential
growth in suicides and mental health problems among university students in NorthAmerica. The
article focuses on the Canadian situation but also cites research and experiences from the US,
thereby expressing that what is at stake is a general phenomenon.
The alarming situation in Canada is summarized thusly: “Fully a quarter of university-age
Canadians will experience a mental health problem, most often stress, anxiety or depression.”
The article then proceeds to offer a number of explanations for the observed increase, among
which we can distinguish two general types: 1. Explanatory factors that refer to coming of age as
5 a generally, potentially universally problematic stage of development, and 2. Historically specific
factors that might explain why the general vulnerability of students has been augmented in recent
The first type of explanation can be illustrated by passage from the article such as these:
“The truth is, it’s never been easy to be young. People in their late teens and early twenties are at
the highest risk for mental illness; in these years, first episodes of psychiatric disorders like
major depression are most likely to appear…..In this delicate life period, people move out on
their own, strike up new relationships, experiment with drugs and alcohol, and assume new
responsibilities.” (56, column 2)
Because they are in transitional phase (the anthropologist Victor Turner has coined the useful
term “liminality” to refer to such phases in which individuals are ‘betwixt and between’ two
stable states), university students become more susceptible to disruptions and generally are more
likely to develop psychiatric disorders and other mental health issues. The article also mentions a
grown number of students which enter university with an already existing diagnosis of a mental
illness, as well as lower stigma associated with mental illness.
“This partly explains the flood that counsellors are seeing. But there’s something else going on,
too. Some wonder if today’s students are having difficulty coping with the rapidly changing
world around them, a world where they can’t unplug, can’t relax, and believe they must by at the
top of their class, no matter what.” (56, 1 clomun)
This quote outlines the second set of explanations, which revolve around the question what has
changed recently in NorthAmerican students’lives to cause the crisis of which the article speaks.
Before I go into a more detailed analysis of these specific factors, I want to outline how what we
conceptualize as a “mental illness”, with depression as an example, can be regarded first from
the perspective of psychological anthropology, then from a cultural anthropological perspective
that approaches culture as a process of communication.
5. What is “Depression”?
-seems to be universal, documented for all ages and regions: states and emotions are described
from antiquity that resemble those to be observed on people suffering from depression today
Very clear neurological correlates, therefore seems biologically based