The News Story – A happier life after divorce
January 5 was this year’s “divorce day”— the first Monday after the holidays, when the number of people seeking a divorce jumps one-third. Couples who decide to suffer through one last Christmas and New Year together—whether for the sake of children, or because they can’t bear the thought of telling family of a split right after carving the Christmas turkey—jump on the phone first thing Monday morning.
And according to some news sources, that’s OK. Heidi Stevens, reporter at the Chicago Tribune, surveys the divorce “experts” and writes that divorce “can often be the beginning of a more tranquil, authentic, happier—indeed better—life.” Stevens writes of “reclaiming lost priorities,” forgotten in the mayhem of marriage. Says one expert, “Creating a vision for your new life is actually easier than staying in a soul-killing marriage.” Also important is “keeping it positive”—set aside old habits, avoid “revenge fantasies” aimed at your spouse, and “embrace the wonderful, happy, fabulous, sexy things that can happen when you’re alone.”
But given what so much of research says about life after divorce, we might well question such glowing tales, and we may perhaps ask such experts if depression is one of the “wonderful, happy, fabulous, sexy things.”
The New Research – Divorced and depressed— in Denver and Dijon
Few mental conditions worry public health officials more than that of depression. Indeed, when researchers from Harvard Medical School and the State University of New York at Stony Brook recently launched a global study of the problem, they strongly stressed its severity. After all, World Health Organization data identify “depression [as] the 4th leading cause of disability worldwide” and indicate (by extrapolation) that “by 2020, it will be the second leading cause.”
In order to assess “the prevalence, course, socio-demographic correlates, and societal costs of major depression throughout the world,” the Harvard and Stony Brook scholars review epidemiological data collected by the World Health Organization in eighteen countries. These countries included nations with high income (the United States, France, Germany, New Zealand, Israel, Italy, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, and Japan) and nations with low-middle income (Brazil, Mexico, China, Lebanon, Ukraine, Columbia, India, and South Africa).
The researchers note marked differences in the prevalence of depression in this culturally diverse range of countries. Interestingly, the data indicate that incidence of “lifetime MDE [Major Depressive Episode]” runs “higher in surveys carried out in high income (28.1%) than low-middle income (19.8%) countries,” with “the highest prevalence estimates found in some of the wealthiest countries in the world” (including the United States).
As they seek to identify the circumstances that might incubate depression, the researchers also highlight “a number of consistent socio-demographic correlates [that] have . . . been found across countries.” Among these correlates, marital status merits particularly close attention. “Marital status,” remark the researchers, “was consistently associated with MDE in the [World Health Organization] surveys.”
Still, marital status predicts vulnerability to depression somewhat differently in more affluent countries than it does in poorer countries. “Overall,” the researchers conclude, “the association between marital status and MDE differed significantly between high and low-middle income countries due to stronger associations of being separated and never married with MDE in high income countries and stronger associations of being divorced and widowed with MDE in low-middle income countries.” Interestingly, though, when the researchers set widowhood next to divorce and separation, they find that “being widowed, in comparison, was less consistently and more modestly associated with MDE”—except (curiously) in Ukraine. In most places, it seems, losing a spouse through divorce is harder on the psyche than losing a spouse to death!
Researchers will no doubt continue to delve into the tangled relationship between depression and marital status. But it is already clear that in a world where divorce rates are high and marriage rates are falling, psychologists will not lack for work!
(Source: Bryce J. Christensen, forthcoming in The Family in America. Study: Ronald C. Kessler and Evelyn J. Bromet, “The Epidemiology of Depression across Cultures,” Annual Review of Public Health 34 : 119-138.)