Learning with a Curve: Young Women's “Depression” as Transformative Learning

Learning with a Curve: Young Women's “Depression” as Transformative Learning

Paula S. Cameron
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6260-5.ch007
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This feminist arts-informed study investigates “depression” as transformation in the lives of young rural women in Nova Scotia, Canada. The author facilitated interviews and zine workshops with four young women who experienced severe depression in their early 20s and remain “angled toward it.” Drawing from Transformative Learning theory, the author asks: How does lived experience of severe psychic suffering affect the “habits of minds” (Mezirow, 1978) of young women? By doing so, the author responds to calls for adult education research on mental health and the intersections between women's emotions, bodies, transformative learning, and the arts. The author addresses the dearth of research on mental illness and transformation and offers preliminary implications for Transformative Learning theory.
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As time passed and I moved from seat to seat in the theater of my own psyche, my perspective shifted along with my sight lines. I came to see my story as an ordinary story. I was and always would be a woman with a curve. I no longer live on the planet of depression, but I am angled toward it. (Dormen, 2001, p. 240)

Up to my 21st year, I worked hard to conform to what a “good” young woman should be. I studied hard, wanted to be kind and beautiful; I forgot my body, denied its appetites, and aimed to please. I strove after that mythical life “balance” that seldom includes one's own true heart. In the final year of an undergraduate degree, however, this delicate fiction began to tear at the seams. I began to attract the wrong kind of attention. And what happened next was only the beginning.

In early adulthood, my life story acquired an omniscient narrator: the voice of science, a deep (male) voice punctuated with assurances and certainties. Bestower of diagnoses, standardized tests, and pharmaceuticals. Over time, as I worked at healing, I became aware that my life was unfolding within wider cultural, political, and social contexts, that I was one of a growing number of people experiencing emotional dissonance in North American society. I read about depression’s gendered contours, recognized stigma as my own seamless veneer was painfully chipped away. There I was, living with my parents, all tangled hair and pajamas.

I soon learned that by stepping into this gap, I was disrupting a very powerful narrative, and I was not alone. Indeed, there is an emerging literature in adult education on the ways women learn through disruptions, interruptions and transitions in their bodies (e.g., Armacost, 2005; Lawrence, 2012; Malkki, 2012). This feminist arts-informed study investigates “depression” as a disorienting dilemma in the lives and bodies of young rural women in Nova Scotia, Canada. In 2011, I facilitated informal interviews and zine1 workshops with four young women who experienced severe depression in their early 20s and remain “angled toward it.”

Drawing from Transformative Learning (TL) theory, and using qualitative and arts-informed methods, I ask: How does lived experience of severe psychic suffering affect the “habits of minds” (Mezirow, 1978) of young rural Nova Scotia women? By doing so, I respond to calls for adult education research on mental health (Brookfield, 2011) and the intersections between women’s emotions, bodies, transformative learning, and the arts (Irving & English, 2011). I address the dearth of research examining “mental illness” and its relationship to TL, and situate depression as valuable transformative learning on behalf of the societies and communities in which women live.



Scientific statistics reflect skyrocketing rates of depression around the world. Depression is predicted to become the second most common global cause of disability in the next decade (WHO, 2002). Despite its well-documented prevalence, however, there is a marked lack of research on lived experiences of depression (Ridge & Ziebland, 2006), particularly in young adulthood (Settersten, Furstenberg, & Rumbaut, 2005), and in adult education literature more widely (Brookfield, 2011).

The growing field of Young Adulthood Studies reveals the changing circumstances in how life stages are structured. A highly competitive economic climate of extended education and delayed onset of work has rendered this life-stage longer, more pronounced, and increasingly complex (Lee & Gramotnev, 2007; Settersten et al., 2005). Emerging mental illness increases existing stress and contradicts expectations of this stage, as many young adults encounter physical and emotional frailty for the first time and divert from intended plans.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Zine: Nonprofessional, noncommercial self-published booklets on diverse topics of interest. A grassroots format which creators produce, publish and distribute themselves. Zines often present alternative viewpoints, a rough-edged aesthetic, and a commitment to the personal in creator’s lives.

Transformative Learning: Broadly defined as the process by which previous assumptions are brought to light and expanded/replaced in favor of new understandings ( Mezirow, 1991 ), “a deep, structural shift in basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions” ( O'Sullivan, 2003 , p.326), as well an examination of how “uncritically accepted and unjust dominant ideologies are embedded in everyday situations” ( Brookfield, 2000 , p. 36).

Habits of Mind: Deeply embedded, almost invisible, assumptions are automatically absorbed from the society around us—including family, community, and culture ( Mezirow, 1991 ).

Seamful Inquiry: A methodology that draws from feminist poststructural theory and qualitative arts-informed methods to examine power at the seams of daily life. Focusing on gaps and tensions within “official” and “unofficial” sites of power, between bodies and language, life stories and broader social forces, seamful inquiry incorporates open-ended art forms in data collection, analysis, and dissemination.

Depression: A highly contested term, “depression” typically refers to psychic suffering that persists over time and results in marked functional impairment. Conventionally viewed through a medical lens, this suffering may lead to medical diagnosis (via the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual - DSM) and treatment through psychotherapy, pharmaceuticals, and/or electroshock.

Disorienting Dilemma: An incident or experience outside a person’s control that triggers transformation ( Mezirow, 1978 ). Critical reflection and transformation can happen all at once (“epochal” transformation), or gradually over time (“incremental” transformation) ( Mezirow, 2000 ).

Seamfulness: A theory and methodology that resists traditional privileging of perfection, i.e., seamlessness, in research, pedagogy, and art. Seamfulness focuses on vulnerability and disruption as productive presence, naming normative limits as spaces for learning and transformation.

Arts-Informed Research: A qualitative research tradition that aims enhance understanding of the human condition through creative processes and forms in order to be more accessible to diverse makers and audiences. Creativity and the arts may be incorporated in data collection, analysis, and dissemination, providing a space for ambiguity, inclusivity, and diverse ways of knowing.

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