Our town: Women and depression

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Kate Spade was a wildly successful 55-year-old fashion designer and her suicide came as a shock to the world.

How could someone who has achieved such fame, wealth and recognition be in such anxious despair that she felt compelled to take her own life?

Unfortunately, suicide is by no means a rare thing. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Women attempt suicide about two to four times as frequently as men and suicidal thoughts are more common in women.
The more famous cases of depression leading to suicide include Marilyn Monroe, age 36, Virginia Woolf, age 61, Sylvia Plath, age 30 and Diane Arbus, age 48. Why do women get depressed enough to want to die at midlife?
An explanation of depression at midlife is nicely explained in Italian masterpiece “The Divine Comedy” written in 1320 by Dante Alighieri.

It is about a man who is at midlife crisis. He cannot find his way forward gets lost in the woods and falls into deep despair.

In Dante’s tale he wants to find his way out of his depression. And it takes the arrival of the poet Virgil to save him. Virgil tells Dante he must first go through hell before he can free himself from his depression.

“The Divine Comedy,” written nearly 700 years ago, is the first book ever written about man’s unconscious.

The simple message in “The Divine Comedy” is that you will need a guide in order to take your through the hell you are presently in denial of. And the tragedy is that without a guide people sometimes opt for suicide.

In the case of Kate Spade, Virginia Woolf, Diane Arbus and many others they were not able to find an able guide with which could lead them out of the darkness and into happiness.
Suicide may be the worst form of self-destructive behavior but other forms of depressive self-destruction also exist and include drinking, drugs use, smoking, overeating, neglect of health, self-mutilation, asceticism, martyrdom, breaking norms, accident proneness, frigidity, gambling, stress-seeking behavior and undergoing multiple operations.
Suicide is a multi-determined process and often will include incredibly misplaced guilt, an unrelenting anxiety about the future, social withdrawal and hopelessness.

Major depression will often include loss of appetite, agitated depression in the morning, shame, anhedonia and an imbalance between the life instincts and death instincts.
The award-winning film which explored depression in women was “The Hours” directed by Stephen Daldry and starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman.

This Academy Award-winning film was based upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Michael Cunningham. It contained three separate plots all about suicide and depression at midlife.

The book and the film are based upon the Virginia Woolf classic “Mrs. Dalloway.”
Many ask why at depression hits at midlife.

The answer is that midlife presents you with a series of subtle losses, the worst of which is the growing awareness that one may not achieve the idealized success one had hoped to achieve.

Very ambitious people will then become vulnerable to experiencing major depression when this occurs.
Some very successful people become exhausted by their own success and opt out of life. Some have such extreme guilt over minor infractions that they wind up killing themselves as punishment. They are the jury, judge and executioner.
I interviewed Alyson Taylor Schwartz, the powerhouse and prime mover at Fusion Academy in Woodbury and she remarked that women may be especially susceptible to depression because the culture expects them to be excellent mothers, good wives, perfect homemakers and career women as well and all that’s an impossible task to fulfill.
I was reminded of the famous line that Cosmo editor Hellen Gurley Brown once said back in the early ’70s.

She is remembered mostly for the quote that “women can have it all.” She meant that women have the right to a career, a family and a good sex life but sadly enough this was quickly interpreted as not only a right but as a required goal.

Needless to say ‘having it all’ is not quite as easy as it looks. The result of this cultural mandate is that women will often feel like they are failing in their life and this can precipitate not only disappointment at midlife but depression.
Kate Spade was an example of a woman who ‘had it all’ but having it all seems to have exhausted her, disappointed her and in the end even may have killed her. We live in a world where images of perfection are all around us.

Madonna always looks good. Lady Gaga makes a fortune. Hellen Gurley Brown ran Cosmo and had it all. But these images are incredibly misleading and potentially damaging because it subtly suggests that you too can have it all.

All you have to do is to work a little bit harder and voila, here comes happiness.

Kate Spade’s life and death tell us very clearly that what appears to be a perfect life may in fact simply be crossing the Acheron river and entering the first circle of hell.

So be careful what you pray for and if you do decide to take that journey make sure you bring along Virgil to keep you company and to get you safely out the other side.

About the author

Dr Tom Ferraro

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