Depression, a psychoanalytic perspective, by Janet Haney
“The distinguishing mental features of melancholia are a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity, and a lowering of the self-regarding feelings to a degree that finds utterance in self-reproaches and self-revilings, and culminates in a delusional expectation of punishment. This picture becomes a little more intelligible when we consider that, with one exception, the same traits are met with in mourning.” Sigmund Freud. Mourning and Melancholia.
It has become very common for people to speak of and suffer depression. We live in an era that is often typified as one of a modern malaise, an era of ennui. Incredible statistics can be produced to show how many people are swallowing ‘anti-depressants’ in order to get up and get on with their lives.
From the point of view of psychoanalysis, discontent is part of the price we pay for living in a civilised state (1) - “depression is a central affect of modernity” (2). Does this mean that it is simply a matter of ‘pulling yourself together’ and ‘just getting on with your life?’ No, clearly not. But it does mean that depression has something to do with a particular human subject in a set of social relations - it is not simply a matter of the chemicals in the body.
In psychoanalysis (3), we say that laughter is like anxiety in that neither of them lie: they both indicate something true or real for a subject. Depression, on the other hand, not only attempts to banish laughter, but also serves to conceal, obscure, or evacuate the sense of any anxiety. In deciding to consult an analyst, you are deciding to take a path that leads back towards laughter, but where there is also the possibility of anxiety. This is a path to be navigated with time and care, enabling you to approach things in a way that both makes sense and is bearable. To begin, you will probably be invited to speak about your history and relationships, this will provide the threads that form the backcloth to your life, against which it will become possible to approach the questions that occupy you today.
The fact that depression is not considered a diagnosis in psychoanalytic work does not mean that psychoanalysts think of it as trivial. There is no kind of depression that is excluded from the psychoanalyst’s consulting room. No matter how serious or debilitating the depression has become, if you are prepared to come along and meet, you will find that your analyst is both able and willing to spend the necessary time and to listen. Working together in the analytic way will give you the chance to communicate something about your particular experience, and to clarify the pathways available to you. Evaluating these together with your analyst will help you to choose the ones you wish to pursue.
1. Sigmund. Freud Civilisation and its Discontents. Standard Edition, Vol 21.
2. Eric Laurent, “The battle of psychoanalysis against boredom and depression” in Almanac of Psychoanalysis, Vol 2. GIEP, Israel. 2000
3. See for example, Freud’s book Jokes and their relation to the unconscious. SE Vol 8, and his paper ‘Inhibition, Symptom and Anxiety’, SE Vol 20
updated April 2013