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Medication and 'Grey' Divorce or Consequences of Divorce in Later Life (Danish Study)

View profile for Liz Headley
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The Guardian newspaper has recently published the findings of a BMJ study conducted by Danish experts regarding use of antidepressants during and following relationship breakdown or the loss of a partner or spouse through bereavement.

Those who took part in this survey were aged between 50 years and 70 years, they were labelled the ‘grey’ generation. Of the survey’s participants. 33% were divorced, 30% split from their relationship and 37% bereaved.

The Danish group who compiled data from the survey came up with statistical information and a variety of suggestions relating to these statistics. The figures showed that fewer men than women increased their use of antibiotics in the 4 years leading up to relationship ending.  Figures also indicated that in the 6 months leading up to divorce or separation both genders increased their antidepressant usage.

In my opinion a couple of quite startling suggestions emerged from the statistical findings. It was put forward that it may be that women find it harder to emotionally adjust to divorce and separation compared to men. The second idea which interested me was that it may be that older men are more likely to seek emotional support from re-partnering.

I have worked with those experiencing relationship breakdown and bereavement for nearly 25 years now, so feel that whilst I acknowledge it’s just my opinion, I feel that I do have some insights into both gender’s responses to divorce and separation. My experience would tell me that although there is usually a grieving process associated with any significant loss, with a wide range of emotions attached to that, the reactions to bereavement and relationship breakdown provoke very individual responses.

It is well documented that divorce and separation and death of a loved one are major life events inviting stress. Both bereavement and relationship breakdown can mean that there will be major changes to be faced and managed, that can affect individuals in a whole variety of ways; for example status, career, identity, self-esteem, financial position can all be affected. In addition, mental health can be severely affected by the management of major changes, alongside the pressure that many may feel under when faced with making huge decisions about the future and possibly being involved in a legal process of some description.

Medication can be extremely useful in managing stress, particularly when used in conjunction with a therapeutic intervention and reasonable self-care. There is no need for any stigma to be attached to being prescribed antidepressants. However, when I speak with a lot of people there can be concern they might become reliant on the medication, or they will be seen as ‘not managing’ with this life event. I do wonder if males in particular, might worry that they might be perceived as less of a man, if they are prescribed and take an antidepressant?

My feeling would be that it is less about men being able to adjust to relationship breakdown more easily than women, as the survey appears to suggest, and more about a whole range of complex factors, including societal expectations.

Given the age bracket of the survey’s participants, 50 – 70, I wonder whether it was taken into consideration that women in this age bracket were likely to be either peri-menopausal or menopausal, adding yet another layer of major change into the mix. Might this additional factor influence even higher levels of emotional response to bereavement and relationship breakdown? My guess would be, for some women, yes it would heavily impact on their management of a very stressful situation and possible lead them to seek a medical intervention in the form of prescribed medication.

Another ‘maybe’ in the study was that it may be that older men are more likely to seek emotional support through re-partnering, than women.

Whilst I don’t have the evidence to argue this suggestion, I do wonder if this is quite a simplistic view. The framing of this generic idea could be perceived as men’s choice to find a new partner, post bereavement or relationship breakdown, is because they are in need of emotional support. 

Of course, this might be just one of the reasons, but there may be many more, and for me, seeking emotional support from a partner is a valid reason for wanting to be in a relationship. Is there a suggestion that women are more likely to choose taking antidepressants rather than re-partner? It is very much an individual choice about how you want to live your life post losing a partner and it is my belief that whatever that choice is, it should not be up for judgement by others.

The loss of a partner at any stage of life can be traumatic. If your partner dies, it is very much out of your control and can evoke tremendous sadness and fears about the future. If your partner chooses to leave you, feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and hopelessness can emerge, and these can be debilitating. If it is your choice to end a relationship, it is not necessarily an easy step, there may well be feelings of guilt, shame and trepidation associated with it.

The ending of a relationship in the later years of life can bring even more complications on both a practical and emotional level, so maybe it should come as no surprise that for some individuals of either gender, a medical intervention might be appropriate. This does not mean that the person is weak or not able to cope, possibly just fearful and fragile. If medication is not deemed necessary, that doesn’t have to mean that the person is ‘hard’ and not having any emotional response, maybe they just have different coping mechanisms or a wider support network.

I think a non-judgemental approach to anyone trying their best to manage a major loss or change is the right one. It can happen to any of us and I believe that receiving empathy and understanding rather than judgement will make anyone’s journey to recovery so much easier.

For any individual seeking legal help from Brethertons, they can rest assured that they will receive a balanced, non-judgemental response. A supportive, confidential environment is offered with appropriate legal expertise and emotionally supportive services to those who require them. For any enquiries, please contact us. We have offices in BanburyBicester and Rugby, working with clients across Coventry and Warwickshire, the West Midlands, Oxfordshire and nationwide.