Main Page
Alphabetical Index

Hints for prints


Personal constructs in depression

The outlines of a personal construct conceptualization of depression and suicide can be found in Kelly’s (1955/1991) description of a depressive lifestyle as one characterized by constriction, the tendency to narrow one’s perceptual field to ignore events that do not fit comfortably within one’s existing construct system. Thus, rather than actively testing, revising, and expanding their interpretations of a widening range of experience, depressed individuals foreclose this elaboration to avoid the anxiety that inevitably accompanies it. As a result, they operate with a relatively fixed and brittle construct system, which can lead to a suicidal predicament in the face of either invariant predictions of a deterministic future (a condition Kelly called "depressive fatalism"), or massive invalidation of the vulnerable construct system (which he termed "total anxiety") (Kelly, 1961). Thus, in keeping with his tendency to understand even serious disorders in a credulous, sympathetic way, Kelly viewed depression as an attempt at adaptation that has gone awry, a temporary withdrawal from a threatening world that has become circular, isolating, and self-perpetuating, sometimes with fatal consequences.

A good deal of subsequent research has both confirmed and refined the outlines of this conceptualization (Neimeyer, 1985). Relative to non-depressed people, those with depression experience anticipatory failure, conceptualizing the future in less extended, and more negative terms. They also construe themselves more negatively, and tend to view events in more polarized, extreme ways, distant both from their ideals and their perceptions of other people. Moreover, personal construct theory may be unique among contemporary theories in emphasizing "structural" aspects of depressive construing, documenting the loosening of coherence or organization in the person’s self-concept as depression deepens, until it tightens along negative lines at the  most profound levels of the disorder (Neimeyer, Heath & Strauss, 1985). Importantly, repertory-grid based measures of such construct system structure and negative-self-construing have been shown to measure different features of the disorder than the cognitive distortions and depressive symptoms that are the focus of more traditional psychological assessment (Neimeyer & Feixas, 1992), and have made a unique contribution to the prospective prediction of serious suicide risk among hospitalized psychiatric patients (Hughes & Neimeyer, 1993). Subsequent research using implications grids has even begun to identify specific 'personality styles' that are vulnerable to depression, as a result of disruptive shifts in different construct subsystems focusing on achievement on the one hand, and dependency on the other (Baker, Neimeyer & Barris, 1997). In sum, personal construct models and methods are of practical value in focusing psychological assessment and treatment in this common, but poorly understood disorder.


  • Baker, K.D., Neimeyer, R. A. & Barris, B.P. (1997). Cognitive organization in sociotropic and autonomous inpatient depressives. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 11, 279-297.
  • Hughes, S.L. & Neimeyer, R.A. (1993). Cognitive predictors of suicide risk among hospitalized psychiatric patients. Death Studies, 17, 103-124.
  • Kelly, G. A. (1955/1991). The psychology of personal constructs. New York: Norton
  • Kelly, G. A. (1961). Suicide: The personal construct point of view. In N.L. Farberow & E. S. Shneidman (Eds.), The cry for help. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Neimeyer, R. A. (1985). Personal constructs in depression. In E. Button (Ed.), Personal construct theory and mental health. London: Croom Helm.
  • Neimeyer, R. A. & Feixas, G. (1992). Cognitive assessment in depression. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 8, 47-56.
  • Neimeyer, R. A., Heath, A. & Strauss, J. (1985b). Personal reconstruction during group cognitive therapy for depression. In F.R. Epting & A.W. Landfield (Eds.), Anticipating personal construct psychology. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Robert A. Neimeyer

Establ. 2003
Last update: 15 February 2004