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Divorce has a terrible impact on mental health. So why is it ignored?

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Today is World Mental Health Day. Let’s celebrate the huge progress that’s been made in championing the equilibrium between our physical and mental wellbeing. While there’s still a way to go, there weren’t always such powerful voices challenging stigma at all levels of society.

But if we take today to look forward, we’d do well to focus on doing more to prevent episodes of mental ill-health from happening in the first instance. Early stage intervention and multi-disciplinary responses are common parlance these days. The two phrases adorn funding proposals and drip from the lips of conference speakers. So why do so few pilot schemes go to scale? Why do endless rounds of innovation funding tackle the same issues?

Let’s look at the two single biggest risks to mental health. Topping the list is losing a loved one, closely followed by divorce and separation. Losing a close family member or friend is something that comes to us all, and, as such, is instinctively understood. Families and friends surround the bereaved. Religions have established ritual, while employers are required to give compassionate leave and some may offer free counselling via an Employee Assistance Programme.

These responses are all different but each have something very important in common: they are all examples of widely available, free of charge, structured support. After all, most of us have friends and family, many of us have religion, and most of us are employed in some form or another.

So what of divorce and separation?
Firstly, some context: divorce is associated with specific and long-term impacts on health and negative impacts on psychological wellbeing. An extensive study, published in 2014, showed that up to half of adults experiencing divorce and separation reported levels of mental distress high enough to be deemed at risk of depression. Moreover, the same study showed it took up to two-years for an impacted adult’s psychological processes to normalise. This is a longer recovery period than observed for bereavement.

Men are particularly at risk. Samaritans have described a causal association between relationship breakdown and suicide, and research has found that the risk of suicide amongst divorced men was almost three times that of married men.

Divorce and separation is also common: close to half of all marriages end in divorce while up to 250,000 parents separate each year. Such are the impacts on adult and child mental health that Professor Gordon Harold, a leading expert on child mental health, labelled family breakdown a ‘public health issue’.

How does society respond?
Well, instead of presenting a united front, friends and family typically take sides, and are a source of ‘advice’ that – shall we say – may not be in the best interests of a family about to change shape.

Religion for its part has an inglorious past on the topic of divorce, particularly when it comes to supporting women. Times are changing, but the stigma remains. And when it comes to major employers, they’re unlikely to have a clue an employee is separating, despite the implied risk to workplace wellbeing and productivity.

So what am I trying to say? Well, I’m simply showing that the top two threats to our mental health are dealt with in opposite ways. Structured and ongoing support is forthcoming when we lose a loved one. But when we divorce or separate, we are left to self-navigate despite a similar risk to our mental health and financial wellbeing.

It is reflected in the repeated refrain of government and civil society that better information and signposting is needed for separating families. That somehow the right decisions will flow from the right information being made available.

It is a myopic stance. Separating adults should not be regarded as rational agents. They are justifiably angry, anxious and – as longitudinal data lays bare – at risk of depression.

A second longitudinal study – also published in 2014 – showed just over half (53%) of separating adults between 1996 and 2011 sought legal advice, and a mere 1% went directly to a family mediator. The rest we assume sat around the kitchen table – without any access to legal advice or structured support – and made pivotal decisions about their family’s future.

The cost of divorce
Even among those that do reach out to lawyers, structure and momentum does not come cheap. A 2014 survey about the cost of divorce by insurer Aviva showed the average spend on legal fees was £1280. This buys less than five hours of billable time from an experienced high street divorce lawyer. In crude terms, a separating adult is a one-time shopper about to make a distressed purchase, if they make one at all. None of us divorce often enough to drive innovation such that professional support is structured, affordable and – above all – speaks to the importance of mental health.

This is the stuff of helping separating families to effectively communicate as they change shape. It is difficult. And calls upon divorce lawyers, family mediators and counsellors to work in genuine tandem.

In 2013, the coalition government took a different path. It pinned its hopes on standalone family mediation to support some of the poorest separating families. And simultaneously cut legal aid from family lawyers while putting aside £10 million to cover the cost of an expected doubling of family mediation.

They couldn’t have got it more wrong. Far from doubling, the number of publicly funded mediations has almost halved since 2013, inadvertently saving the Ministry of Justice millions of pounds each year. Over the same period, the number of parents representing themselves at the family courts over child matters has soared. This is self-navigation in motion. And it’s a disaster for families, communities and society in general.

Let this salutary tale inspire us all to make a change. Before next year’s World Mental Health Day rolls around.

By Marc Lopatin

*Marc Lopatin is the co-founder of Dialogue First which today launches the UK’s first fully integrated network of family lawyers and family mediators. To download a free White Paper visit: dialoguefirst.co.uk/white-paper

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