Women take more antidepressants after divorce than men

That doesn't necessarily mean women are more depressed


Research out today from Finland suggests women may find it harder to adjust to later-life divorce and break-ups than men.

The study used population data from 229,000 Finns aged 50 to 70 who had undergone divorce, relationship break-up or bereavement and tracked their use of antidepressants before and after their relationship ended.

They found antidepressant use increased in the four years leading to the relationship dissolution in both genders, with women experiencing a more significant increase.

But it's too simplistic to say women experience poorer mental health or tend to be less happy after divorce than men.

Remind me, how common is divorce?

Just under 50,000 divorces are granted each year in Australia. This has slowly declined since the 1990s.

More couple are choosing to co-habitate, instead of marry, and the majority of couples live together prior to marriage. Divorce statistics don't include separations of cohabiting couples, even though they are more likely than married couples to separate.

Those who divorce are doing so later in life, often after their children grow up. The median age of divorce increased from 45.9 in 2021 to 46.7 in 2022 for men and from 43.0 to 43.7 for women.

The trend of late divorces also reflects people deciding to marry later in life. The median duration from marriage to divorce in 2022 was around 12.8 years and has remained fairly constant over the past decade.

Why do couples get divorced?

Changes in social attitudes towards marriage and relationships mean divorce is now more accepted. People are opting not to be in unhappy marriages, even if there are children involved.

Instead, they're turning the focus on marriage quality. This is particularly true for women who have established a career and are financially autonomous.

Similarly, my research shows it's particularly important for people to feel their relationship expectations can be fulfilled long term. In addition to relationship quality, participants reported needing trust, open communication, safety and acceptance from their partners.

Grey divorce (divorce at age 50 and older) is becoming increasingly common in Western countries, particularly among high-income populations. While factors such as an empty nest, retirement, or poor health are commonly cited predictors of later-in-life divorce, research shows older couples divorce for the same reasons as younger couples.

What did the new study find?

The study tracked antidepressant use in Finns aged 50 to 70 for four years before their relationship breakdown and four years after.

They found antidepressant use increased in the four years leading to the relationship break-up in both genders. The proportion of women taking antidepressants in the lead up to divorce increased by 7%, compared with 5% for men. For de facto separation antidepressant use increased by 6% for women and 3.2% for men.

Within a year of the break-up, antidepressant use fell back to the level it was 12 months before the break-up. It subsequently remained at that level among the men.

But it was a different story for women. Their use tailed off only slightly immediately after the relationship breakdown but increased again from the first year onwards.

The researchers also looked at antidepressant use after re-partnering. There was a decline in the use of antidepressants for men and women after starting a new relationship. But this decline was short-lived for women.

But there's more to the story

Although this data alone suggest women may find it harder to adjust to later-life divorce and break-ups than men, it's important to note some nuances in the interpretation of this data.

For instance, data suggesting women experience depression more often than men is generally based on the rate of diagnoses and antidepressant use, which does not account for undiagnosed and unmedicated people.

Women are generally more likely to access medical services and thus receive treatment. This is also the case in Australia, where in 20202022, 21.6% of women saw a health professional for their mental health, compared with only 12.9% of men.

Why women might struggle more after separating

Nevertheless, relationship dissolution can have a significant impact on people's mental health. This is particularly the case for women with young children and older women.

So what factors might explain why women might experience greater difficulties after divorce later in life?

Research investigating the financial consequences of grey divorce in men and women showed women experienced a 45% decline in their standard of living (measured by an income-to-needs ratio), whereas men's dropped by just 21%. These declines persisted over time for men, and only reversed for women following re-partnering.

Another qualitative study investigating the lived experiences of heterosexual couples post-grey divorce identified financial worries as a common theme between female participants.

A female research participant (age 68) said: [I am most worried about] the money, [and] what I'm going to do when the little bit of money I have runs out [] I have just enough money to live. And, that's it, [and if] anything happens I'm up a creek. And Medicare is incredibly expensive [] My biggest expense is medicine.

Another factor was loneliness. One male research participant (age 54) described he preferred living with his ex-wife, despite not getting along with her, than being by himself: It was still [good] knowing that [the] person was there, and now that's gone.

Other major complications of later-life divorce are possible issues with inheritance rights and next-of-kin relationships for medical decision-making.

Separation can be positive

For some people, divorce or separation can lead to increased happiness and feeling more independent.

And the mental health impact and emotional distress of a relationship dissolution is something that can be counterattacked with resilience. Resilience to dramatic events built from life experience means older adults often do respond better to emotional distress and might be able to adjust better to divorce than their younger counterparts. 

(The Conversation: By Raquel Peel, RMIT University) 

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