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Medical models and metaphors for depression

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 February 2015

S. B. Patten*
Department of Community Health Sciences and Department of Psychiatry, University of Calgary, Mathison Centre for Research & Education in Mental Health, Hotchkiss Brain Institute, University of Calgary, 3rd Floor TRW Building, 3280 Hospital Drive NW, Calgary, AB, CanadaT2N 4Z6
*Address for correspondence: Scott B. Patten, MD, PhD, Department of Community Health Sciences and Department of Psychiatry, University of Calgary, Mathison Centre for Research & Education in Mental Health, Hotchkiss Brain Institute, University of Calgary, 3rd Floor TRW Building, 3280 Hospital Drive NW, Calgary, AB, CanadaT2N 4Z6. (Email:



The aetiology of depression is not fully understood, which allows many different perspectives on aetiology to be adopted. Researchers and clinicians may be attracted to concepts of aetiology that parallel other diagnoses with which they are familiar. Such parallels may assume the role of informal models or metaphors for depressive disorders. They may even function as informal scientific theories of aetiology, energising research activities by guiding hypothesis generation and organising new knowledge. Parallels between different types of disease may ultimately prove valuable as frameworks supporting the emergence and maturation of new knowledge. However, such models may be counterproductive if their basis, which is likely to lay at least partially in analogy, is unacknowledged or overlooked. This could cause such models to appear more compelling than they really are. Listing examples of situations in which models of depression may arise from, or be strengthened by, parallels to other familiar conditions may increase the accessibility of such models either to criticism or support. However, such a list has not yet appeared in the literature. The present paper was written with the modest goal of stating several examples of models or metaphors for depression.


This paper adopted narrative review methods. The intention was not to produce a comprehensive list of such ideas, but rather to identify prominent examples of ways of thinking about depression that may have been invigorated as a result parallels with other types of disease.


Eight possible models are identified: depressive disorders as chemical imbalances (e.g., a presumed or theoretical imbalance of normally balanced neurotransmission in the brain), degenerative conditions (e.g., a brain disease characterised by atrophy of specified brain structures), toxicological syndromes (a result of exposure to a noxious psychological environment), injuries (e.g., externally induced brain damage related to stress), deficiency states (e.g., a serotonin deficiency), an obsolete category (e.g., similar to obsolete terms such as ‘consumption’ or ‘dropsy’), medical mysteries (e.g., a condition poised for a paradigm-shifting breakthrough) or evolutionary vestiges (residual components of once adaptive mechanisms have become maladaptive in modern environments).


Conceptualisation of depressive disorders may be partially shaped by familiar disease concepts. Analogies of this sort may ultimately be productive (e.g., through generating hypotheses by analogy) or destructive (e.g., by structuring knowledge in incorrect, but intellectually seductive, ways).

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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