Marriage is an institution filled with challenges. Couples are faced with trying to navigate through multiple life stages as a team, often finding that conflicting expectations provide ample room for disagreement. Sharing finances and children too can create stress for a couple.
While normal, everyday life holds many stresses for the average couple, there are circumstances that can create significant complications and added difficulty. For instance, when one spouse has a mental illness, life can become very hard for the other person.
A recent study provides new insight about how being married to a depressed person can influence the development of depression in the spouse. Given that the spouse of a depressed person often feels that they must somehow make up for the depressed mental state of their spouse, they have a heavy mental burden.
Spouses try to fill a void left by the physical and emotional toll of depression. In addition, the family’s finances are often impacted when the depressed individual’s ability to earn a wage is affected, and their spouse may feel under pressure to replace the income.
These pressures often result in an unusually high level of stress for the spouse of the depressed individual. An effective support system among friends and family can help offset some of this stress, and those relationships can become crucial to the spouse of a depressed person. However, in many cases the stigma of mental illness can break down the support network.
Led by Oudsia Tariq of the Department of Psychology at the University of Karachi in Pakistan, the study is one of the first to examine how gender and stigma affect the risk of depression in spouses of those who have been diagnosed with depression. This was compared with the risk of depression for those married to individuals with a physiological health problem.
Those who are married to someone with depression have a higher risk of being diagnosed with depression themselves, when compared to individuals whose spouse is not depressed. In this study, Tariq examined 35 spouses of mentally ill patients and 40 spouses of those who had a physiological health problem.
The study results showed that rates of depression increased when there was an eroded support system. In addition, both groups had a higher risk of developing depression when stigma was shown to be a factor in diagnosing the depression.
Tariq says that stigma is an important component in the outcome of the study. Because mental illness is known to have a strong genetic influence, stigma often bleeds to the family, causing the family to suffer stigmatization and have fewer resources available.
The study showed that the effects of stigma reduced individuals’ ability to find ways to alleviate stress and to rely on their support system. The effect was more significant among wives than husbands.
The findings are published in the Pakistan Journal of Psychology.