By Richard Tripp II
Are women really from Venus, and are men really from Mars? According to Diane Spangler, a clinical psychologist at BYU, they aren’t from either–they’re both from earth.
Spangler has just finished a study that proves false a popular theory in clinical psychology regarding how and why men and women become depressed. The theory purports that men are more likely to become depressed about achievement-related issues, whereas women are more likely to get depressed over relationships.
“Within each different orientation of clinical psychology,” Spangler says, “there is at least one, if not several, depression theorist who hypothesizes these two distinct pathways to depression–one for men and another for women.”
Spangler’s study, however, indicates that gender has little, if any, influence on which route is taken to depression; a man is just as likely to take a “woman’s route” to depression and vice versa.
Spangler began this study in an effort to account for the higher occurrence of depression among women worldwide. Several studies have established that for every depressed man in the United States, there are two depressed women. Outside the United States the ratio is three women to one man. While repeated studies have documented these ratios, there hasn’t been much substantial research that examines why women are more likely to get depressed.
The two explanations Spangler has tested and analyzed thus far are biological and psychological. The biologic explanation suggests that female hormones account for the increased rates of depression among women. “Beyond my own, there’s been a fair amount of research in this area,” says Spangler, “and we’ve basically established that hormones really don’t account for gender differences in the incidence of depression.”
This conclusion led to the psychological study. Spangler sampled a group of 427 outpatients in Philadelphia who were seeking treatment for depression. Each patient completed a series of tests designed to determine his or her “pathway” to depression. After the data were gathered and analyzed, Spangler and David Burns, an adjunct clinical faculty member in psychiatry at Stanford University, discovered that there was no evidence to support the commonly believed theory about male and female pathways to depression.
Spangler says this study could have a big impact on depression treatment. “In terms of clinical practice, these supposed pathway differences are stereotypes that some clinicians have in their minds when they meet with patients,” she says. “When they see a woman, they instantly think, ‘Oh, she has relationship problems.’ My hope is that therapists won’t be so quick to assume they already know the reasons for a patient’s depression based solely on the patient’s gender.”
Spangler says her study could also have effects beyond the psychological world; her findings might counterbalance much of the information in mainstream literature that polarizes men and women into their respective genders. “I find the theories that divide men and women as more damaging than helpful,” she says. “I would think that these kinds of findings would help bring people together by polarizing them less. It might help men and women to focus more on their similarities and less on their differences.”
With neither biological nor psychological differences in men and women satisfactorily accounting for gender differences in depression incidence, Spangler is now focusing her efforts on theories that look at the social conditions and life experiences of men and women. These theories move away from the idea that there is something intrinsic in one’s gender that causes depression and focus on external forces that may have an impact. Spangler says there are environmental conditions–such as sexual abuse, assault, and poverty–that women experience more often than men and this evidence could possibly account for the male/female depression ratio. She and her team are collecting data on environmental factors in depression as part of a 10-year study.