Mental illness as a contributing factor to marriage problems has hit the headlines in at least two marriages in the entertainment industry since November, and cannot be ignored as a real and pressing problem faced in the marriages of many non-celebrity husbands and wives. Behavioral health continues to be an underserved and stigmatized area of need, but the numbers of individuals in need of help are somewhat staggering. Treatment resources are limited, and many avoid care for fear of casting shame on themselves and their family.
Currently one in five adults reports not being able to access mental health care because of the cost, and men are less likely to seek help, when needed. Men and women suffer from the same mental illnesses (e.g. depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar, or suicidal thoughts), but men are less likely to talk about or recognize their feelings.
Experts agree that married people tend to be happier, healthier, and to live longer than unmarried or divorced counterparts, but unhappiness in a marriage has a detrimental effect on both physical and mental wellbeing. Those who have been previously married tend to suffer more from mental illness because of broken relationships, single parenthood, and other stressors.
What is it like to live with a mentally ill spouse, and what does it do to a marriage?
Kristine recalled her initial concerns that her husband was struggling with his mental health and her feelings of helplessness in the situation. "I understood why he was suffering. He had a devastating blow to his career followed by the death of his estranged father, and was shortly after diagnosed with cancer. Who wouldn't be depressed or thrown for a loop?"
Kristine went on to explain that her concerns grew deeper as he withdrew, became more erratic in his thinking (including making rash accusations), and refused to talk about the issues. "I was there for him" she stressed "but he wouldn't let me in. He started saying things that didn't make sense, such as how he wanted to have a "do-over" with his life, which didn't include me or the life we planned. I begged him to go to counseling and talk to somebody if he wouldn't talk to me, but he was afraid it would affect his military security clearance and hurt his career even more."
Kristine described how she wrote a letter to his mother to tell her that he had already asked for a divorce, but that she hoped his mom could somehow still convince him to seek help. Upon reflection, Kristine shared that she now realizes he was at even greater risk for mental illness because both his father and brother also suffered from chronic mental illness. She lamented how by the time she granted him the divorce he was a shell of his former self; but, that she knew that their marriage had no hope if he was unwilling to seek any kind of help even for himself.
"It was terribly sad seeing this vital, intelligent man become a dark and paranoid person who was so full of mistrust and anger." Kristine went on to compare his illness and their subsequent divorce as impactful as a death in her life, made all the sadder by the limited resources for the people who need them and the barriers that prevent people like her ex-husband from reaching out for help.
"He remarried and has since divorced again. I became friends with his second wife and she told me many things which confirm that he has only become worse, but still refuses help. He became so suspicious of her that he bought a black light to investigate their home for signs that she was hiding something and even installed software to allow him to review her keystrokes on her computer so he always knew what she was typing and to whom. After a while, she just couldn't take his paranoid delusions anymore, and without help he will never get better!"
Another wife, Sasha, explained how her current husband's behavior has become so erratic that she and her children live in fear of him and what he might do to them or himself. "He can say the most hateful things to me that truly break my heart, but what's worse is that our children are afraid of their dad and actually avoid being home around him."
Sasha recounted one of many events when he left the home (by foot because she was afraid to give him access to the car) on a nonsensical mission. "One time he was found walking after hours, and until his feet were bloody, by a neighbor who saw him and brought him home. Another time he disappeared for half the night. I kept calling him to ask where he was and when he would be home, and he would tell me he was picking up something from the store, but hours would pass and he still never made it home."
Sasha explained that he finally made it home that night when her in-laws and the police escorted him home. The police found him driving very slowly along the side of the road just as his parents happened to drive by. He explained to the police that something was wrong with his shoe, causing him to not be able to drive correctly. He could not recollect where all he had been or what he had done for the several hours he was away, which led his family to be urgently fearful for his safety and theirs.
After the night the police brought him home, Sasha and her in-laws took him to a hospital to have him evaluated. To their horror, he was able to convince the medical staff that he was competent, so they would not admit him. "After that event, I have no faith in the system. He needs help and no one will give him the help he needs! Some days I expect to come home and find that he's killed himself, on purpose or otherwise, and I just don't know how much more I can take!"
Mental illness is credited with increasing the odds of divorce by as much as 80 percent, especially when personality disorders are and untreated behavioral maladies. Spouses who suffer from mental illness should be encouraged to reach out for help and made to feel safe about doing so. The recent plight of celebrities struggling with speculated mental illness has brought out support from friends and the public, but also those who would ridicule them for having a problem or seeking help. Clearly more strides need to be made to make it as acceptable for those suffering with mental illness to seek treatment as it is for any other ill person to find help for any other disorder.
Spouses who decide to divorce a mentally ill spouse should also pay special consideration to how the illness will play into custody, court proceedings, and other legal aspects of the split.
Audrey Cade is the author of "Divorce Matters: help for hurting hearts and why divorce is sometimes the best decision" and the matriarch of a blended family of eight. She is an experienced "divorce warrior" in the areas of co-parenting, step parenting, parental alienation, and re-marriage, and enjoys sharing these experiences with others who are also committed to raising happy and healthy kids. Audrey's professional experience is as a case manager social worker with the developmentally disabled, families with young children, and homeless populations. She holds degrees in Early Childhood Education, Human Service & Management, and a Master's in Psychology.