Picture depression. I imagine that what came to your mind is nothing like what came to mine. How could it be? Depression affects people (both first- and second-hand) in countless and perennial ways, something I’ve always known but was solidified in the course of this project. For my Information Visualization Project, I wanted to explore the ways that people depict depression for different audiences. I wanted to understand (and at certain times, make commentary on) the choices authorities make in selecting particular data to highlight for particular audiences. To that end, I chose to think of each visualization as one that serves a vastly different purpose based on who might distribute the visualization, and who they would conceivably be targeting to receive it.
Academia: The Scatter Plot
I decided to start close to home, with a straight-forward scatter plot one might find in an academic journal. The full, interactive version of the plot can be found here. I used Many Eyes to create a scatter plot with ascending dot sizes. Each dot represents a country in Dr. Evelyn Bromet’s list of the top 19 most depressed countries. I retrieved data from the International Monetary Fund for the y-axis, which denotes the average income for each country in international dollars. Both the x-axis and the size of the plot points indicate the rate of depression (%) for each country.
We can infer from this graph that there is a possible correlation between wealth and depression. At first, one might here that and think, “But of course; if you’re poor, then you must be at a greater risk for depression.” Not so. According to this scatter plot, the wealthiest of countries can be the most depressed. Here, those include France, the United States, and the Netherlands. The rate of depression in China is less than a third than that of France, while the IMF reports their avg. income to be less than a quarter of France’s. These statistics are intriguing for professionals working in the fields of mental health, global business, and political affairs.
The Newsstand: Photographics
Next I wanted to have a go at the sorts of infographics one might find in a magazine. Publications like Time and Newsweek publish erudite studies about health often, but they make a decided effort to use fresh and innovative ways to make data digestible to the average reader who might be 20+ years away from their last lesson in advanced statistics. I used an October 2011 study by the National Center for Health Statistics, published here on the CDC website, that indicated the following:
This graph is remedial in its construction, but (I believe) impacting in its execution. I quite literally separated out 25 pills and then 100 pills, organized them just so, and snapped a picture. It’s a simple statistic, but it conveys that in a very short period of time, an unprecedentedly large amount of attention is being paid to medicating depression. I didn’t want this graphic to stand alone, so I decided to create a companion photographic that illustrates the percentage of Americans 12 and older that are currently medicating for depression. Below, you’ll find two versions of that graphic. The only difference between the two is aesthetic, as the first is intended to be a makeshift pie chart. Which do you find more effective?
What I hoped would be the knee-jerk reaction when a person takes a look at these images, particularly in the case of the very first image illustrating the 400% increase is, “Damn, that’s a lot of pills.” Then, once they recognize that each of those pills is standing in for actual people, I think that the message will make its way home. I’m debating whether it would have been helpful to perhaps note that each pill in the first image represents roughly 1,180,000 Americans, and that each white pill in the last two graphics represents roughly 10,727,727 Americans. That said, those numbers could muddle the simplicity that makes these images simultaneously efficacious and easy to digest.
In The Schools: A Celebrity Approach
This is where I decided to take a couple of chances; I intended for this graphic to be both an informative image and a commentary on how people reach kids and teens. Moving away from adult audiences looking for hard facts and statistics to solidify new information about mental health, I wanted to take a look at how one might reach a young audience with this sort of serious and delicate topic. I chose to create a graphic that a guidance counselor might hang in her office. The poster would imply that even a child or teen’s greatest heroes are susceptible to depression, so they shouldn’t be ashamed to deal with it either. This gives depression a face, and a recognizable one at that. Some of the stars featured: Heath Ledger, Michel Foucault, Alec Baldwin, Buzz Aldrin, Natalie Portman, Winston Churchill, Woody Allen, Lupe Fiasco, Gwen Stefani, Sylvia Plath, J.K. Rowling, Oprah, Jackson Pollock, Jim Carrey, David Foster Wallace. This intentionally varied selection of people is a manipulative device, but that’s what makes graphics like these popular.
Web Trolls: A Reddit Wordle
Finally, the sort of graphic that might make its way around the internet. After all, it’s based on a sub-community of Reddit, and there’s nothing Reddit users like more than a little self-reflexivity. For this final information visualization, I visited 10 of the most recent discussion boards on the subreddit r/depression. Here, people use anonymous handles to talk about the topic of depression. It’s an online support group of sorts, partially a place for advice and partially a virtual soapbox. People talk about their feelings without qualms, because somehow Reddit has accomplished the marvelous task of seeming to be the most anonymous spot on the web. I compiled the text from those 10 most recent discussions and put them through the Wordle cloud generator. The result:
This graphic is the most colloquial, and while it lacks a scientific accuracy, it is perhaps the most brutally honest of the set. These are real, everyday people – not statistics or celebrities – describing how they are feeling in raw detail. Unlike the magazine infographics, this image didn’t need the flash of bright colors (though I would hope readers might appreciate the red, white and blue pills illustrating an American tendency). Communities like Reddit are predominantly interested in the information, not the flash; it’s not about selling magazines with shiny graphics. Instead, the grayscale reflects the sentiment of the cloud and the discussion boards on r/depression. By taking individual testimonies and compiling them just so, this visualization sheds light on the commonalities of their experiences and creates a sort of unified voice of the Reddit users suffering depression.
In a way, these graphics have a movement about them; from beginning to end, this project moved from the scientific, erudite and succinct to a more nebulous and emotive illustration. Different infographics belong in different places; I’m sure Dr. Bromet wouldn’t be too interested to see her study depicted in a word cloud in the American Journal of Psychology. Nor would a reputable newsmagazine be keen on printing a sensational graphic like that of the celebrity collage. They seek a gravitas that a school counselor does not. And while each of these images focuses in on the same narrow subject, they could not be more different in terms of who they are targeting and the reactions they hope to provoke.