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Women and Depression Through the Ages: Medical Model and Feminist Theory, Part Three

Updated on May 23, 2018
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Medical model of depression

In Britain, more women then men, will be diagnosed with depression and prescribed treatment. To understand why statistics show more women then men suffer from depression we need to look at women's throughout the ages. In the 1700's those with mental health problems, were thought to have lost their minds and reason and been reduced to the condition of a brute. Of those confined to the madhouse, most were women and they were treated no better than animals.

The eighteenth century saw an expansion in psychiatry and a move towards change in the views of mental illness. Mental illness was now to be discussed in terms of illness and disease. This change of attitude came about as a result of the Anatomy Act of 1832, which had led to some knowledge and understanding of bodily functions and workings of the brain. This knowledge held a mechanistic view of the body and normal bodily functions. The theoretical point of view of this mechanistic medical model of mental illness is that, somatic, or aberrant bodily process are the cause of mental disorders. It was thought that mental illness was the result of something going wrong with the functioning of the brain or there was a a malfunction of some part of the brain.


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Medical Model of mental illness.

The medical model, deterministic in its approach, looks for a physical cause of abnormal behaviour. Using physical illness as the basis for the study and management of mental illness, the medical model claims that, a person displaying depressive symptoms could be experiencing a mental or psychological disorder with its root in a physical cause. Physical causes included imbalance of the biochemical of the brain, disease or injury of the brain, or, as a result of inherited defective genes.

The development of psychotropic drugs in the 1950s was thought to be a way of fixing the problems of the mind. The new drugs could control the symptoms of abnormal or anti-social behaviour, without the need for segregation. Many would agree that the new drugs could prove beneficial to some sufferers as initially they did help to alleviate many symptoms and so lessen the suffering. The new drugs provided quick and successful means of treating many forms of mental illness. Another added bonus of the drugs was that they enabled those incarcerated in institutions to live a relatively normal life within the community. This helped to ease the pressure on the health budget as psychiatric hospital care was expensive and at the time, took up a large proportion of health budgets.

Others would benefit from the development of these drugs, including the psychiatrist. Now the psychiatrist would be able to carry out other work, as they would not be burdened with trying to understand the complexities of life and the millions of different ways that people could be affected by life situations. The development of pharmacological treatments meant that health administrators were now able to focus on research.

From a positive point of view, the medical model can take some credit for the identification, and, in some cases, successful treatment of mental illness. There is evidence to support the idea that biochemical abnormalities play an important role in the development of psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia. However, there is sill no clear appropriate biological explanation of depression.

The psychotropic drugs did alleviate some of the symptoms of mental illness the approach as been criticized by many. Feminist writers, Showalter (1985) and Ussher (1991) argued that the physical therapies of the medical model, or, biological directives, have been used as a form of social control. They view treatments prescribed by the medical model as chemical straight jacket, prisons that controls behaviours with out the need for physical walls. Others argue that the medical model does not take into account how social situations could contribute to depression in women. Also, what needs to be remembered is that the psychotropic drugs are not a cure all and they can have serious limitations such as being addictive or having serious side effects.

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Feminist theory of depression

The medical model views depression as an illness or disease in need of treatment, and, as statistics show that more women than men are depressed, it stands to reason that more women than men will need treatment. The early medical psychiatric idea claimed, women were biologically more susceptible to mental illness and the feminist theorist's, whose aim is to protect and expand the rights of women as equal human beings to men, argue that it is women's position in society that drives them mad. They argue that it is the patriarchal capitalistic society's approach to women as second rate citizens, that drives them to despair, women are not ill, according to the feminist, they are oppressed and unhappy and they are disadvantaged as a result of unequal opportunities in contemporary society.

The societal rules that women are prescribed, expects them to always defer to others. From birth she is socialised or trained to, anticipate the needs of others and care for them before she cares for herself. As a consequence women are supposed to ignore their own needs for mental well being. Others argue that women are oppressed as a result of their role as the unpaid labour of society. Women's unpaid labour includes, housework, caring for children, the sick, the disabled and the elderly. Within the capitalistic society, a woman has no option but to conform to her designated role, as her refusal could run the risk, as historical evidence as shown, the label of mental illness. Conversely, studies have shown that conforming to such a restrictive servitude role could lead to unhappiness, which in the eyes of society is depression, a mental illness. Women have no choice but to conform as they are refused the right to complain, show displeasure or criticise those in power who make the rules. According to the feminist, madness or depression in women is in reality the cry of the powerless and the aim of psychiatry, is, and as been, to silence that cry and keep social order.

Accepting socialised gender roles can be just as difficult and oppressive for the male within society. They too are expected to conform to socially defined norms of gender traits which not all male's find comfortable or acceptable. Ussher (1991) claims, "whilst women are likely to be deemed in need of psychological or psychiatric help if they commit a deviant act, men will be deemed in need of legal incarceration, or punishment".

Part one. Birth of civilisation, women and mental illness.

Part two. Age of Confinement.

Carl Rogers Humanistic theory of counselling

Self-Harm. Part one.



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    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 4 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Dear louise elcross,

      Thank you for an interesting and well written article on a problem that affects so many women.

      Voted up and interesting.

      Kind regards Peter

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