Friday, January 22, 2010

American Melancholy by Laura D. Hirshbein

Written by a psychiatrist/historian, this engaging book traces the growth of the diagnosis of depression in the second half of the twentieth century. Hirshbein argues that while the symptoms of depression can be found throughout history, the diagnosis of depression and its various treatments became commodities only late in the last century. What some have seen as the destigmatizing of a disease she interprets more as a marketing triumph. Her second argument is that reports that women suffer from depression much more frequently than men are not simple reports from nature but artifacts of the way depression has been studied. Her arguments about the construction of the diagnosis of depression got me thinking about the diagnoses that have come and gone--hysteria, neurasthenia-- and wondering how long the the diagnosis will retain its popularity. A particular strength of this book is that the author has not only described the psychiatric literature on depression, but also explored popular literature on the subject.