Whose Depression?20 December 2009
On American television this month WebMD.com has been targeting depression sufferers. Their commercial features a middle-aged woman who describes a difficult situation: her marriage had been struggling, her husband wasn’t communicating with her, he threatened to leave, she begged him to stay, that she would do anything; he left anyway. The commercial then switches to the WebMD web site, which features a quiz to see whether you are depressed. The person (not pictured) clicks on “excessive crying.” The narrator encourages viewers to log on in order to determine whether one is suffering from depression.
The interesting thing about this commercial is that it is unclear all along exactly who they are describing and who they are targeting. In this unfortunate situation, is it the woman who is depressed? Or is the commercial saying that her husband, acting wholly irrational, is the one depressed? After watching it several times, it seems the commercial is targeting the former, viz., the unfortunate woman who is left to fend for herself after being abandoned by a man. She is sad, no doubt, but he manifests the more acute signs of emotional distress and perhaps mental illness. Yet the clicking of the “excessive crying” box in the commercial seems to have reference to her, not her despondent husband.
As someone who has been in men’s support groups for over a decade, I have had exposure to numerous cases of male depression. It isn’t nearly so obvious as one would hope. Men tend to be less willing to describe themselves at being depressed, and tend to attach it less to communal stresses, a recent study by Stacy De Coster found (“Depression and Law Violation: Gendered Responses to Gendered Stresses,” Sociological Perspectives [summer 2005]). Men will, however, attend more to “agentic stresses,” that is, stresses caused by others calling into question their own personal competency. Men respond not through overt depression; they break the law.
If WebMD really wanted to help people who are unaware of their condition, they would have made some kind of effort to underscore the fact that it is the husband who is probably suffering from chronic depression. As it is, this commercial (like most advertisements advertising for depression through stereotypical displays of sadness) will find themselves reaching women far more than men.