Without question, divorce often ranks as one of the most stressful life experiences someone can go through. Anyone who has known a couple or individual going through divorce likely knows the emotional upheaval and mental health strain it can cause. In these circumstances, depression is not uncommon and can be substantial and long-lasting. But what is the link between divorce and depression, and is it inevitable to experience depression from divorce?
Divorce Is a Common and Stressful Event
The statistics on how many marriages end in divorce are an eye into just how common divorce is. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), between 40 and 50 percent of couples in the U.S. divorce, with even higher divorce statistics for subsequent marriages. That makes divorce a common event in this country, and along with divorce, mental health takes a hit as the stress associated with divorce commonly results in depression.
Mental health and divorce law don’t always seem compatible, with the rigors of the legal process tending to exacerbate emotions at a time when disagreements and disputes take center stage between litigants.
Can Divorce Cause Clinical Depression?
Can a stressful life event like divorce cause diagnosable depression? Part of the answer to this question requires differentiating a depressive episode from situational grief and sadness.
During a highly emotional life event like divorce, one or both persons involved may experience a period of sadness or grieving that’s tied to the dissolution of their union. This is sometimes called situational depression, because it’s related to the underlying reasons for and consequences of splitting up.
This sadness and feeling blue may be more pronounced depending on the individual circumstances (for example, if there are children who have been negatively affected). Usually, though, the type of depression caused by divorce will end after some time. Call it “the grieving period,” or the period when the person feeling isolated, blue, and depressed marshals their resources and coping skills to get on with their life.
A depressive episode, or major depressive episode, refers to the time during which the symptoms of a depressive disorder manifest. In America, depression (major depressive disorder) is the top cause of disability in those from the ages of 15 to 44, and it is more prevalent in women than men. The disorder of depression is the diagnosable term for clinical depression, which a medical professional can diagnose if the individual presents with depressed mood and other symptoms that have been evident for two weeks or longer. According to the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH), risk factors for depression include a family history of the disorder and significant and serious life changes such as trauma and major stress. (Some depression is caused by certain types of medications and medical conditions.)
In the context of divorce, a depressive episode may occur when:
- The psychological pain of the divorce is so deep and causes lasting mental and emotional stress
- The individual is not able to deal with underlying problems and feels overwhelmed and completely unprepared to cope with the difficult reality the divorce brings to the surface.
5 Ways to Navigate Divorce Keeping Mental Health Intact
Whether you’re contemplating a divorce or in the middle of the legal process, keeping divorce and mental health clearly in focus should be a priority. In other words, take care to ensure that the stresses and strains of the entire divorce process don’t overwhelm emotions and coping mechanisms to the point where self-sabotaging mental health through the use of alcohol and drugs and other self-destructive and addictive behaviors seems like the only alternative.
With this in mind, here are five ways to navigate a divorce while preserving mental health:
1. Strive for a Healthy Divorce
It does sound a bit like an oxymoron, since the pairing of the words “healthy” and “divorce” don’t exactly seem compatible, yet a proactive way to prevent depression from divorce is to take steps to facilitate as healthy a divorce process as possible.
In this regard, it may be helpful to look for a divorce coach, someone impartial who’s trained to help individuals navigate the often-turbulent legal process. The goal should be to encourage and promote cooperation instead of confrontation, agreement rather than locking heads in conflict, and coming to a middle ground instead of being rigidly insistent on having things just go one way.
In addition to a divorce coach, hiring a mediator agreed to by the attorneys for both parties to the divorce may be advisable. A divorce mediator might be a better alternative than going through endless months of procedures in court. Mediation may be beneficial in settling on spousal relationships, agreements regarding children’s custody and visitation, as well as promoting more satisfaction during the divorce process.
2. Be Willing to Seek Counseling if Things Get Difficult
Even with a divorce coach and possibly divorce mediation, emotions may be so distressing that they’re causing serious life disruptions. Stress, anxiety, depression, and/or using drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with divorce and mental health could undermine much of the progress already made in the divorce process. How to proceed in a logical, balanced manner without succumbing to complete negativity and wallowing in misery and depression is a good area to address with a psychologist or other mental health professional.
3. Agree to Maintain Close Contact Between Both Parents and Children
During a divorce, it’s hard for children to see their parents constantly arguing and packing up possessions and moving to a different location than the home the family once shared. Yet research shows that children are quite resilient and should be able to bounce back from their parents’ divorce within two years, particularly if the parents adopted a parenting plan that is more beneficial to the welfare of the children. Workshops and training for parents that focuses on how each parent can improve their relationship with their children can be helpful.
4. Get Help Early if Symptoms of Depression Arise and Persist
Understanding the difference between depression or sadness that’s temporary is important when symptoms of depression become noticeable and tend to linger longer than a couple of weeks. It’s also important to distinguish between how men and women experience depression since it’s different for each. Women tend to feel sad, worthless, and guilt-ridden. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to suffer irritability, experience insomnia, and attempt to numb their feelings with alcohol and drug use.
Instead of putting on a brave face and believing it’s necessary to struggle through depression alone, get help early if depression from divorce starts to erode normal, healthy functioning. Make an appointment with a psychologist or psychiatrist and follow through on the decision to get unbiased, professional mental health counseling and treatment for depression. This approach will likely boost self-esteem and optimism, by providing new suggestions and potential solutions that may not presently be apparent.
5. Prioritize Self-Care
During a divorce, the easiest and most readily available action to take to improve divorce and mental health is being proactive by engaging in excellent self-care.
- This means getting enough sleep to be able to successfully navigate the day without exhaustion, enabling clearer thinking and decision-making.
- It’s also necessary to remain physically healthy by eating regular, nutritious meals, getting sufficient exercise, and doing enjoyable activities.
- Reach out to loved ones, family members, and friends to help take away some of the burdensome responsibilities and provide companionship and support during this traumatic time.
- Join a support network to communicate with others going through a divorce so you have allies and a better understanding that you’re not alone in this difficult period.
- Pursue new activities, hobbies, and embark on a journey of self-discovery—all of which can help elevate self-esteem, boost confidence, and make each day a bit more welcoming.