Melancholic Depression

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Melancholic depression is a severe mood disorder that is psychotic in nature. In psychoanalysis, it is understood to arise from incorporation of the lost object (experienced as a bad, "abandoning" part-object) into the ego, which identifies with it. This object is then attacked by another part of the ego, the superego. The ego is thus the recipient of the reproaches (self-reproaches) and attacks targeting the object with which it has identified ("[T]he shadow of the object fell upon the ego," as Freud wrote in "Mourning and Melancholia" [p. 249]).

The above definition follows Freud's account almost to the letter. Freud used the term melancholiato refer to depressive states in general. However, while this dynamic as described helps explain the various depressive states, it more precisely describes melancholic depression of the psychotic type. As early as 1911, Karl Abraham discussed the problems of depressive patients and thereafter continued to develop the characteristics of such personalities. He also gave a detailed account of the melancholic introjection of the lost object at once into the ego and into the superego. Sándor Rádo (1928) underscored the melancholia's purgative effectsthe "processes of expiation and reparation" set in motion by the internal struggle between the superego and the ego. In Abraham's view, this struggle made possible the destruction and anal expulsion of the bad object. In this way the ego once more became worthy of entering into contact with good or idealized objects; and, ultimately, the route to mania was opened to it.

From the Kleinian perspective, Hanna Segal (1964) describes melancholia as the result of manic-schizoid defense mobilized against the depressive position. The melancholic's identification with the lost object tends to be of the projective kindan archaic psychotic defense mechanism. This explains the almost perfect match between the ego and the part-object with which it becomes confused.

The defensive functioning is thus diametrically opposed to that of schizoid-paranoid mechanisms, where the ego identifiesmost often projectivelywith a more or less idealized object (Palacio Espasa, 1977). Indeed, as a counterpart to the variety of manic defenses seen across the whole range of mental operations, psychoanalytic experience shows different types of melancholic defenses designed to counter depressive anxiety; there are also paranoid defenses, or, on the contrary, neurotic anxiety. When the melancholic defenses are used against persecution anxiety, the persecuting-destructive aspects of the object with which the ego identifies are more visible, whereas in the face of depressive anxiety, the object's damaged/destroyed aspects come to the fore. The various psychic tendencies often called "masochistic" (based on expiation, appeasement, submission, propitiation through seduction, and so on) may be viewed as the range of essentially neurotic melancholic defenses.

Francisco Palacio Espasa

See also: Depression.


Abraham, Karl. (1927). Notes on the psycho-analytical investigation and treatment of manic-depressive insanity and allied conditions. In Selected Papers of Karl Abraham, M.D. (pp. 137-156). London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psycho-analysis. (Original work published 1911)

Freud, Sigmund. (1916-1917g [1915]). Mourning and melancholia. SE, 14: 237-258.

Palacio Espasa, Francisco. (1977). Défenses mélancoliques versus défenses maniaques. Revue française de psychanalyse, 41 (1-2), 217-226.

Rádo, Sándor. (1928). The problem of melancholia. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 9, 420-438.

Segal, Hanna. (1964). Introduction to the work of Melanie Klein. London: Heinemann.