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Divorce is associated with an increased risk of future depressive episodes but only for those who already have a history of depression, according to a new study published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“Stressful life events like divorce are associated with significant risk for prolonged emotional distress, including clinically-significant depression,” notes psychological scientist and lead researcher David Sbarra of the University of Arizona. “At the same time, we know from considerable research that the experience of divorce is non-random. Some people are much greater risk for experiencing a divorce than other people.”
This led Sbarra and colleagues to wonder: Is it divorce, or the factors leading to divorce – such as marital discord, neuroticism, or hostility – that increase the risk for depression?
To investigate this question, the researchers took advantage of data from the longitudinal, nationally representative Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS) study. The researchers matched each participant who had separated or divorced during the study to a continuously married person in the study who had the same propensity to divorce, based on a number of previously identified factors. By comparing participants to their match, the researchers were able to account for the fact that it’s impossible to randomly assign people to divorce or stay married.
In line with previous research, the results showed that divorce had a significant effect on subsequent depression.
But, as Sbarra and colleagues found, the full story was a bit more complex.
Specifically, divorce or separation only increased the likelihood of a later depressive episode for those participants who reported a history of depression. In fact, nearly 60% of adults with a history of depression who divorced during the study experienced a depressive episode at the follow-up assessment.
For all other participants – including those who had a history of depression but hadn’t divorced, and those who divorced but had no history of depression – there was no elevated risk for a future depressive episode. Only about 10% of these people experienced a depressive episode at follow-up.