Maria Shriver's new report, "A Woman's Nation," paints a rosey picture of women's situation in the 21st Century. But several other prominent women's memoirs describe growing depression and bipolar disorder among women, and epidemiological data support this picture.
The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, October 19, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
Is Shriver Woman's Nation Depressed? - Ballooning depression among women
Maria Shriver has issued a report on the status of women, A Woman's Nation , which emphasizes women's growing economic role. But is the report blind to the reality of a new ghetto for many women, one constructed out of depression and bipolar disorder?
Here are three women who have led prominent lives in past years which they subsequently announced were ruined by mental illness. All have written (or plan) books that suggest contemporary life for women is overhwelmed by unrecognized emotional disorders.
Jane Pauley. As co-host from 1976 to 1989 of the leading morning news program, The Today Show, Pauley was one of the most visible women in the United States. She embodied the new American woman by maintaining her career while being married to cartoonist Garry Trudeau, with whom she raised three children. Eventually pushed out at Today by the younger Deborah Norville, Pauley moved on to co-host Dateline from 1992 to 2003. Following Dateline, Pauley hosted a daytime talk show, but it was cancelled after a year.
When she launched her own short-lived show in 2004, Pauley simultaneously released a memoir, Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue, in which she revealed her bipolar disorder. This was striking because Pauley had previously kept her personal life under wraps. She was first diagnosed with the disorder in 2001, which was near the end of her skein atop network television - although she reports she had dealt with emotional issues for a long time. Pauley has since promoted the recognition of depression, participating in the PBS special, Depression: Out of the Shadows, which aired in May 2008.
Margaret Trudeau. Trudeau led a more openly troubled life than Pauley's. At age 22 in 1971 she married the much older Pierre Trudeau, who was Prime Minister of Canada. She quickly tired of that role and moved on to the party scene in the United States. She often left her children behind to dance at Studio 54 and to have affairs with Ted Kennedy, Jack Nicholson, and Warren Beatty. In 1984 the Trudeaus officially divorced, and Margaret quickly remarried and had two more children. In 1998 her son died in an avalanche and she had a breakdown that led to her second divorce.
In 2006, Trudeau revealed that for 30 years she had been "fighting a lonely battle" against bipolar disorder, which she had refused to acknowledge. She now speaks publicly about the need for people - particularly women - to come forward and accept such a diagnosis like she did. She has a book about her bipolar disorder scheduled for publication in 2010.
Kitty Dukakis. Kitty is the wife of former Massachusetts Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. She was treated for alcoholism in 1989, which she described in Now You Know. Dukakis labeled her drinking a reaction to the stress of her husband's campaign and the shock of his defeat. But this was not the end of Kitty Dukakis' mental health trials. Dukakis then was diagnosed as bipolar, and she felt that she relapsed beause this condition was missed during her alcoholism treatment. She later underwent electroshock for depression, which she discussed in a subsequent memoir, Shock, published in 2006.
All three of these women had high profiles at earlier points in their lives. All are now primarily known for their mental illnesses. Is there something telling in these stories, as though to fly so high was to tempt the fates? Were they ill prepared for the prominent roles they achieved, which led to their emotional problems? In fact, all of them reported that they fought mental illness most of their lives. But why are women so much more often subject to affective (depressive and bipolar) emotional disorders?
Maria Shriver's highly publicized new report doesn't discuss experiences like those described by Pauley, Trudeau, and Dukakis. Rather, the Shriver Report suggests that young women can anticipate entering a new world of opportunity, which should make them happier. But that's not what the data show. An article entitled "Explaining the rise in antidepressant prescribing" finds that young women's depression is increasing the most rapidly of any group: "between 1993 and 2005, there was overall a small change in the incidence of new diagnoses of depression . . . . However, there were more marked trends within age and sex, including a large rise in the incidence of new diagnoses among young women."
These are young women BEFORE they face the demands of home and work that the Shriver Report focuses on. Widespread mood disorders among youth are more fundamental than conflicts created by the corporate lifestyle, the world Shriver is most familiar with. The real woman's world may be better described as a depressed one. The question is, which of these - economic opportunity or emotional disorder - is the brave new world that young women will be entering?