Divorce Triggers Depression Relapse
August 27, 2013

Divorce Can Trigger Depression For Those Predisposed

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Researchers say people with a history of depression are more likely to relapse into the condition if they go through a divorce, while those without such a history aren’t likely to slip into a depressed phase following a divorce or separation.

These are the results of a new study from the University of Arizona that were published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science. There are clearly many factors to consider when predicting the risk of depression among adults going through a divorce, but lead researcher David Sbarra said overall divorce and separation are likely to send those prone to depressive episodes back into a dark place.

“Stressful life events like divorce are associated with significant risk for prolonged emotional distress, including clinically-significant depression,” explained Sbarra, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. “At the same time, we know from considerable research that the experience of divorce is non-random. Some people are at a much greater risk for experiencing a divorce than other people.”

For most couples, divorce is less of a spontaneous event and more of a long and painful journey, of course. Sbarra wonders if the events leading up to divorce — anger, fights, lack of trust or even infidelity — might also contribute to the depression following a divorce, or if it is simply the break-up itself which triggers it.

To answer this question, he and his colleagues tried a clever approach to the problem. Using data from the Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS) study, a nationally representative study, he compared people who had been divorced with those who were stably married. By pairing the data from both types of survey participants, Sbarra was able to determine whether people who experienced marital strife were also prone to depression.

After analyzing the data, Sbarra concluded divorce itself was in fact the trigger that sends those with a history of depression into another episode. Specifically, the results showed 60 percent of individuals with a history of depression experienced a depressive episode following their divorce. Those with a history of depression who remained married were not any more likely to become depressed, nor were those without a history of depression. Sbarra says only ten percent of these people experienced a depressive episode following a divorce.

“These findings are very important because they affirm the basic notion that most people are resilient in the face of divorce and that we do not see severe disorder among people without a history of a past depressive illness,” explained Sbarra. “If you’ve never experienced a significant depression in your life and you experience a separation or divorce, your odds for becoming depressed in the future are not that large at all.”

Though his research shows divorce can trigger depression in those already predisposed to it, Sbarra was careful not to speculate on which part of divorce may trigger such an episode.

“Do these people blame themselves for the divorce? Do they ruminate more about the separation? Are they involved in a particularly acrimonious separation?” asks Sbarra. Additional research is needed to answer these and other questions.

Though adults without a history of depression are likely resilient to the life change, prior research has shown that children of divorce are more likely to struggle with anxiety and loneliness and even fall behind their peers in school.