To watch the Lecture, please click on the video below:
The research I will present in the seminar comes from my new book “Sadness, Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017). The book contains the research project I carried out for my PhD (University College London). I conducted a qualitative study amongst 57 practising Catholics in Spain: students, priests, and contemplative monks and nuns. Through semi-structured interviews, participant observation and ethnography their understanding of severe sadness, coping mechanisms and help-seeking behaviour were explored. The participants clearly differentiated between sadness in response to a cause (sadness that “made sense”), and cases where sadness was not explained by the context (sadness that “did not make sense”). The former was seen as a normal reaction to adversity which should be resolved by the individuals’ social, cultural and religious resources, while the latter was likely to be conceptualised as pathological, along the lines of depression, warranting psychiatric consultation.
It was also found that religion played a crucial role in the way sadness was understood and resolved: symptoms that otherwise might have been described as evidence of a depressive episode were often understood in those more religiously committed within the framework of the “Dark Night of the Soul” narrative, an active transformation of emotional distress into a process of self-reflection, attribution of religious meaning and spiritual growth. A complex portrayal of the role of the spiritual director and the parish priest in helping those undergoing sadness and depression emerged, containing positive aspects and criticisms of some priests’ lack of commitment and mental health training.
This study emphasises the importance of taking into account the context of depressive symptoms, as the absence of an appropriate context is seemingly what made participants conceptualise them as abnormal. It also warns about the risks of medicalising normal episodes of sadness, raising questions about the lack of face validity of the current diagnostic classification for depressive disorder, which exclusively uses descriptive criteria. The book concludes by making some suggestions regarding differentiating normal from pathological sadness and how to incorporate existential issues into clinical practice.
Dr Glòria Durà-Vilà is a Senior Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and Medical Lead for the Neurodevelopmental Pathway in Surrey and Borders NHS Foundation Trust. She has a special clinical interest in Autistic Spectrum Disorders.
She studied medicine in Valencia, Spain, and was trained in psychiatry at the Royal Free Hospital and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at St Mary’s Hospital in London. She completed an MSc and a PhD in Mental Health at University College London. She is Honorary Lecturer at the Research Department of Mental Health Sciences, University College London. She was previously Clinical Lecturer at Imperial College London for four years. Her research interests focus on medical anthropology and cultural psychiatry including spirituality and mental health, pastoral care for sadness and depression, idioms and narratives of distress.
She has authored two books published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers: My Autism Book. A Child’s Guide to their Autistic Spectrum Diagnosis (2013) and Sadness, Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul. Transcending the Medicalisation of Sadness (2017).