Social determinants of diagnostic labels in depression

Soc Sci Med. 2006 Jan;62(1):50-8. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.05.021. Epub 2005 Jul 11.


The role of diagnostic labels in medicine is usually that of labelling an illness as a means of communication. Control over labelling processes in medicine is ordinarily imposed via medical schools, textbooks, education or by diagnostic manuals. Diagnostic labels often change following new discoveries in underlying pathology such as 'consumption' being relabelled as 'TB' or 'cancer'. Sub-types of broad diagnostic labels also often emerge from such discoveries e.g. 'lung cancer' or 'throat cancer'. In mental health, underlying pathology is the subject of ongoing debate spanning ideas including the brain as a faulty organ, faulty genetics and environmental problems. With controversy over pathology comes controversy over labels and the idea that labels may be used not just for communication, but as devices of social and professional control, arising out of a social process. This study explores the codification of the diagnostic label 'depression' which emerged in the twentieth-century and has proliferated with numerous sub-types over the last 40 years. The aim is to examine its social determinants and context. Medline is used as a data source for professional label usage. A range of depression sub-type labels in professional use was identified. This exercise revealed many official and 'unofficial' terms in professional use. Citation rate plots by year were then generated for these depression sub-type labels. The rise and fall of different labels are examined in relation to social determinants and context, including publication of diagnostic manuals DSM and ICD, power shifts in psychiatry, the discovery of psychiatric drugs and the shift from inpatient to community care. Exploring the changing use of official and unofficial labels over time in this way provides a novel historical perspective on the concept of depression in the late twentieth-century.

MeSH terms

  • Bibliometrics*
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Depression / classification
  • Depression / diagnosis*
  • Depression / therapy
  • Depressive Disorder / classification
  • Depressive Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Depressive Disorder / therapy
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders*
  • Humans
  • International Classification of Diseases*
  • Manuals as Topic*
  • Power, Psychological
  • Psychiatry*
  • Sociology, Medical*
  • Terminology as Topic