Story by Vanessa Blackburn ('95)
In the early 1980s, doctoral student Dana Jack was sitting in class at Harvard when the instructor began to talk about how women approach relationships. It got her thinking about the women she met while working in Western Washington University’s counseling center during the ‘70s, talking with many young women who were depressed.
“At Harvard my advisor was Carol Gilligan, who is brilliant and whose work on women’s different voice really struck a chord with me,” Jack says. “She said in a lecture one day that women view the failure of their relationships as a moral failure, and I thought, ‘That’s what all these young women are saying, that their distress centers on relationships.’ At that moment I thought, ‘I’m doing my doctoral work on depression from a relational perspective.’”
Thus began her career in exploring how women silence their own voices in relationships and how that can contribute to depression. Now an author and professor at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Jack went on to develop the Silencing the Self Scale, which has helped psychologists and therapists around the world address depression in women.
Where did you get the idea for the Silencing the Self Scale?
It came from a study of a very small group of women. I listened to the moral themes in their interviews, when they would say “I’m a failure, I’m worthless,” things you say when you’re really depressed. But if you follow the themes, and ask “what do you mean,” they would talk about their relationships and how they weren’t working and how it was their fault.
Your research has now been used across the world, and in 2001 you traveled to Nepal to study women and relationships there. Why Nepal?
I wanted to immerse myself in a radically different culture and explore depression and self-silencing in a place where women’s voices are not encouraged and they are expected to be silent and submissive. I had a wonderful experience teaching in a Nepalese graduate women’s studies program while at the same time doing research on depression in government clinics, and what I wanted to know is what happens in a culture when women are told, ‘You can’t really say anything. You don’t have very many rights at all.’
How did your experience in Nepal influence your research of the last 10 years?
It made me want to do this book (“Silencing the Self Across Cultures”), made me want to look at what other people are finding in other cultures. I was very lucky, because researchers (already) had been writing me about what they were finding in other countries.
What has excited you the most about working with others around the world on these questions?
The more minds that are on a puzzle, the better. I never could have dreamed of the range of questions and ideas people have. It also means that if other people are finding the same patterns that I’ve found, it’s even more credible. The World Health Organization has said that depression is going to be the number two health burden in the world by 2020, and we have drug companies sending out medications to people who are malnourished. Now we also have more relational interventions that are focused on getting people to talk, and that’s really exciting to see.
What’s next for you?
I plan to go to New York University this fall and meet with collaborators on an article, then set out my next research agenda, which will be exploring self-silencing in men. I’m interested in working on this puzzle of gender and self-silencing. What I’m really excited about are two things: one is that men are relational and this scale shows that self-silencing is not good for anybody. But it also gets us past this dichotomy or binary of gender — men are like this, women are like this — which is destructive to both genders. So I’m taking fall quarter off from teaching to do research.