GWU- Biology Department
While Marilyn Monroe was recognized for many things during her mid-1950’s career– a sex symbol, a movie star, a “dumb, innocent blonde” full of naivete–she was also known to be a troubled person. With marriage conflicts, drug abuse, and stress under the spotlight leading to her untimely death at 36 years old, there is evidence pointing to Monroe suffering from depression from a young age and throughout her career. In fact, depression still remains today as one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Depression is a mental illness characterized by feelings of emptiness, anxiety, fatigue or sadness. Several behavioral changes also point to symptoms of depression, including changes in appetite, sleeping patterns, feelings of guilt, or difficulty making decisions (Mental Health America). With 6.7% of the U.S. population aged 18 years and older suffering from depression, it stands as the leading cause of disability in 15 to 44 year olds (Anxiety and Depression Association of America). Clinical depression can manifest because of side effects of medications or illnesses, though it often comes up due to one or more factors in an individual’s life, including genetic, situational, and biological factors. Genetic factors include a family history of mental illness, while situational factors include stressful life events. Biological factors include imbalances in neurotransmitters, namely serotonin. This theory is strongly supported by current research and is a promising explanation into the mechanism of depression. In regards to Monroe’s condition, evidence indicates that childhood events, many stressful situational factors, and biological imbalances contributed to her diagnosis.
After Monroe’s father left the family early on, Monroe’s mother was in and out of mental institutions because of depression and Schizophrenic tendencies. This left Monroe to spend a large part of her childhood in several foster homes and orphanages. Childhood trauma came along with this instability, with cases of sexual abuse and various other mistreatments reported. In addition, mental illness was hereditary on her mother’s side. After spending the larger part of her childhood shunted from one foster home to the next, Monroe experienced instability as an adult in her marriages as well, the first when she was 16 years old. Monroe and James Doughtery married after falling in love and after deciding that their marriage would prevent Monroe going back to a foster home. After a year of marriage, Doughtery was assigned an overseas assignment during the war, leaving Monroe to find work at Radioplane Co., as a part of the war effort (McLellan). It was here that a photographer first saw Monroe, with Hollywood fame quickly beckoning. While her career ambitions rose, her marriage crumbled, as a Hollywood contract prevented her from staying married to prevent a “pregnant starlet” (McLellan). The relationship ended there, though the influences of this experience remained throughout her life. Firstly, it was after Doughtery’s rejection that fueled Monroe’s deep insecurities regarding men, as she was desperate for acceptance from a man she feared preferred a former girlfriend. Her feelings of unworthiness were triggered here, as she later reports upon psychoanalysis. She was also reminded of the sexual abuse experienced as a child, and subsequent punishment by her foster mother that left her feeling a great deal of loneliness (The Hidden Life of Marilyn Monroe). Secondly, this experience was not the last time throughout Monroe’s career that the film industry forced her into decisions and molded her into the signature blonde recognized today. Monroe’s true personality was suppressed, forcing her to hide her intelligence in place of an innocent, ditzy personality. Her physical appearance also changed to include straight, blonde hair over her natural curly, brown hair. While the film industry placed a great deal of stress on Monroe, it is also the outlet Monroe used to feel accepted, a fact she confided in private diaries. This is also seen in the nude photo shoots she partook in after feeling “broke and desperate” (Kashner).
Monroe’s social context up until this point in her life is largely characterized by an inspiration to feel acceptance, after an unstable childhood and a crumbled marriage. Throughout the rest of her adult life, these same feelings arose as a result of her reputation in the film industry. Besides the doctors treating her for psychological symptoms, publicists, and Hollywood connections, Monroe had little contact with the outside world. After several years in the film industry, Monroe’s mental illness eventually caught up with her. While filming Seven Year Itch, Monroe frequently forgot her lines and cost the production a lot of money because of the numerous retakes that had to be done. She soon got caught up in substance abuse, alcohol abuse until intoxication, and drug use on set trying to deal with her feelings of emptiness. It was around this time that Monroe got involved with Lee Strasberg, her acting teacher. For Monroe, Strasberg represented the father figure she never had, one who was autocratic yet nurturing. His acceptance of her in their private acting lessons lead to her boosted confidence and his great influence over her, despite others accusing him of taking advantage of her. This therapy provided Monroe an outlet to resurface the traumatic experiences she faced in the foster care system, in addition to the fear she held onto of disappointing those she loved around her, mainly her husband and acting teacher. After years of experiencing rough times in therapy, she was eventually fired from the set of Something’s Got to Give and admitted into a mental institution (Kashner).
During the filming of Something’s Got to Give, Monroe seemed to be at the top of her game. Monroe just bought her first home in Brentwood, California, and appeared radiant and happy on the set of the film. Her chronic tardiness on the set of the film-making, however, lead to her being fired and the movie remaining unfinished. While on the outside Monroe seemed radiant and happy, her unexpected death four months later in her Brentwood home proves otherwise and still remains a mystery. Numerous accounts in Monroe’s diaries and personal notes point to her emotional fragility, even describing a previous, unsuccessful suicide attempt. Monroe’s struggle with depression can be traced back to her unstable childhood and throughout her adult life, attempting to gain acceptance by being a huge part of the film industry. This desperation for love and acceptance also manifests itself in the three failed marriages that ultimately left Monroe feeling more and more insecure. Monroe’s social context in regards to her mental illness is described as one where her career in film-making left her feeling more empty, as she desired acceptance despite being surrounded by Hollywood connections attempting to change her personality into a ditzy blonde loved by the audience. When Monroe was ultimately declared ill, the attempted treatment–being placed in a mental institution–ended up making matters worse, as she felt surrounded by people who did not understand nor care for her. Monroe’s illness was publicly disclosed after her death, as her various diary entries and notes were collected and saved in archives.
The situational factors that Monroe faced and that lead to her depression are strong, from her childhood trauma to her troubled marriages. In addition, Monroe’s genetic factor (hereditary mental illness on her mother’s side) further contributed to the illness, as well as a possible biological factor. These social and genetic components most likely contributed to Monroe’s severe depression. An important component to explore in further detail is the neurological imbalance in the brain that potentially leads to depression. A leading theory today points to decreased levels of serotonin being responsible for the onset of depression, in addition to stressful situational events. One thing to keep in mind is that the onset of depression is a very complicated mechanism not fully understood by researchers and psychologists even today. An accepted theory is that depression is multifactorial, with many different components in an individual’s life contributing to its onset. Serotonin, or 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) is a neurotransmitter derived from tryptophan, largely understood to be responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being. Serotonin is largely found in the central nervous system, gut, and blood platelets of animals. While the greater majority of serotonin (90%) is located in the GI tract to regulate intestinal movements, the remainder of serotonin in the body is synthesized in the CNS, regulating mood, sleep patterns, and appetite (Young). Recent research conducted at Rockefeller University shows that in both mice models and depressed humans, a protein related to serotonin transmission in the brain (the p11 protein) is decreased, likely leading to onset of depression. The p11 protein is involved in the transmission of neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, and has been shown to influence mood regulation. As a result, p11 is now a potential target in recent drug therapy for mood disorders (Svenningsson et. al.). In the midstem of the brain, a cluster of nuclei called the raphe nucleus is responsible for releasing serotonin to the rest of the brain. Serotonin is theorized to be involved in coping mechanisms of various types of stress, including acute, chronic, and future stresses. If these coping mechanisms are affected, such as if serotonin levels are too low, then generalized anxiety disorders and depression may result. Evidence supports the theory that in depression, 5HT1A receptor function breaks down (Deakin). While the exact mechanisms of depression are not well understood, evidence points to serotonin playing a large part. The decreased function of serotonin-uptake receptors or serotonin levels impales the body’s ability to deal with stress. The combination of stressful life situations and the body’s decreased ability to cope with such stress likely ultimately leads to depression.
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