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Flathead Depression Study

Flathead Depression Study

Wenner Grant Foundation for Anthropological Research; Sigma-Xi, The Scientific Research Society; The Jacobs Research Funds, Whatcom Museum Society. 

1987 - 1990

Theresa O’Nell, Ph.D.

Theresa O’Nell, Ph.D.



What can it possibly mean to say that the majority of Flathead people are depressed?   This startling assertion, made repeatedly to the author during preliminary field trips to the Flathead Reservation, begged for investigation.   This project reflected one attempt to come to terms with this powerful and plaintive commentary on contemporary American Indian life. Specifically, the project had 2 Specific Aims: 

  1. a cultural analysis of the meaning of "depression" among the Salish in relation to traditional and contemporary concepts of illness and distress and in relation to psychiatric concepts of depressive disorder; and 
  2. an investigation of the social sources of demoralization and depression in this American Indian community.



Three lines of inquiry structured this investigation of Flathead depression.   First, interviews with elders, language instructors and cultural experts provided the basis for an ethnosemantic analysis of current and traditional concepts of depressive-like experiences. Second, archival research with existing socio-demographic data, coupled with 18 months participant-observation of modern reservation life, drew into focus the specific economic, political, and social patterns that engender unique experiences of deprivation and demoralization.  Third, in-depth semi-structured interviews with 20 adults who claimed to be "depressed" identified the cultural and social factors affecting the experience of depression among Flathead people.



All 20 interview respondents were solicited for the study because they described themselves as having suffered with depression, but they were solicited in varying ways. Eleven respondents were recruited informally in private conversations at community events or social settings.   Six of the respondents were longer-term acquaintances that agreed to be interviewed.   The 3 elders who appear in the sample were invited to participate in the study during visits made to their homes.   While the sample was not randomly drawn, an effort was made to balance the sample in terms of age and gender during the period of research: the 10 men and 10 women in the sample ranged in age from 29 years to 79 years, with an average of 49 years and a median of 46 years.






O'Nell, Theresa D. (1996) Disciplined hearts: History, identity, and depression in an American Indian community, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

O'Nell, Theresa D. (1994).   Telling about whites, talking about Indians: Oppression, resistance, and contemporary American Indian identity.   Cultural Anthropology, 9(l):94-126.

O'Nell, Theresa D. (1992/93).   'Feeling worthless': An ethnographic investigation of depression and problem drinking at the Flathead Reservation.   Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, Special issue, Jack Maser and Norman Dinges (editors) 16(4), 447-470.

O'Nell, Theresa D. (1989).   Psychiatric investigations among American Indians and Alaska Natives: A critical review.   Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 13, 51-87.

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