Love doesn't always hurt, but it usually does when it ends.
Anyone who has experienced the breakup of a relationship knows it can cause anxiety, irritability, anger and feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness—all symptoms of depression. How a person internalizes a breakup will largely determine whether he or she weathers the storm or whether outside help is needed.
Lost Love and Vulnerability to Depression
Distorted interpretations of a romantic breakup will lead to stronger emotional responses, according to a report by the US Surgeon General.
A person who believes, "I will never find someone else like him" or "I am incomplete without her," will have a much more difficult time coping with the loss than somebody who thinks "there are more fish in the sea" or "she wasn't the one for me."
Research shows that those who have very rigid attitudes about the importance of romantic love are the most likely to develop depression. These people tend to attribute three very specific qualities to the end of a relationship. They are:
- global impact: "This breakup will have a big impact on my life."
- internality: "This is my fault," or "I should have done things differently."
- irreversibility: "I'm never going to get over this person."
Negative thoughts alone are not sufficient to cause a diagnosable mood disorder, however the combination of cognitive vulnerability and a mildly depressed mood can lead to a downward spiral that can lead to depression.
Depression and Young Love
Young women are at a heightened risk for depression than are older women and men of all ages.
Young women tend to experience more emotional distress following a breakup, have more intrusive thoughts about the former relationship and experience greater rates of sadness, anxiety, and negative emotions than do others. As many as 43 percent of college-aged students have trouble sleeping in the months following the end of a relationship. Young people at the greatest risk for depression include those who:
- have experienced neglect or abuse during childhood
- have an insecure attachment style
- felt betrayed by their former partner
- were unprepared for the breakup
Dwelling On the End of a Relationship
"Closure"—that subjective state in which the emotional charge is removed from a memory—may not be as ethereal a concept as once believed.
Scientists who study relationships say that with regard to memories, endings are an especially important factor in how people react emotionally down the road.
According to Denise Beike, a psychologist at the University of Arkansas, it's not how a person ends a relationship that matters but, instead, how she remembers it that counts. Beike describes the two types of memories as "open"—those which people conjure up with a great deal of passion—and "closed"—those past memories that have truly been laid to rest.
The final impression of a relationship, she says, has enormous influence in shaping a person's life story. According to her research, "dwelling on open memories decreases self-esteem while increasing self-awareness."
Often, breakups are precipitated by a traumatic event such as an infidelity. In such cases, the end of the relationship can be filled with negative emotions such as fear, anger, or a desire for revenge. Most mental health experts suggest a period of contemplation before ending the relationship hastily.
"People don't consider the future when they are in bad situations; they think of ending the pain now," says Barry Lubetkin, a clinical psychologist and author of Bailing Out: The Healthy Way to Get Out of a Bad Relationship and Survive.
In order to experience closure, most people require a strategy that considers everyone involved while, at the same time, protects their own self-interest.
Treatments for Depression After a Breakup
If prolonged sadness over the end of a relationship is affecting other relationships and other aspects of a person's life, it is a good idea to seek help from a clinician, counselor, or other mental health professional. If a person is diagnosed with depression, subsequent treatment may include antidepressant medicationsor talk therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a present-based, goal-oriented type of talk therapy, has proven to be especially effective in treating depression after a breakup. Sometimes a combination of both drugs and psychotherapy is advised.
Breakups and Teenage Suicide
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people in the United States. Each year, nearly 20 percent of teenagers consider suicide. Depression is the number one risk factor for teen suicide. Others include:
- a stressful event such as a breakup
- alcohol or drug abuse
- a family history of mental illness
- a previous suicide attempt
- access to firearms
- exposure to other adolescents who have committed suicide
- self-harming behaviors such as burning or cutting
One in 12 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 will attempt suicide. Therefore it is very important for parents, teachers, and counselors to recognize depressive symptoms and to take action.
If a teen is in crisis, parents should call 911, take their child to a hospital emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).