The Spillover Effect of Depression

Living with a partner who suffers from depression results in a significant risk of decline in quality of life.

(October 2019) Mental health issues rank among the leading causes for ill-health worldwide, with an estimated 450 million people suffering from such conditions. Especially older adults are at risk of developing mental health issues. In face of population ageing, this is an ever-growing public health concern. While the overall mental health burden is well documented, only limited research has been conducted on spousal interrelations in mental health and well-being. Thus, a research team from the University of Cantabria, Spain examined a potential spillover effect of the depression of one partner on the other partner’s quality of life and its determining factors.

Evidence of poor mental health and low quality of life in SHARE

In order to assess the impact of a partner’s mental health condition on individual quality of life, Pascual‑Sáez et al. conducted a cross-sectional analysis for a set of countries included in Wave 6 (2015) of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). The sample includes data on individuals aged 50 and over from 2004 until 2015. The researchers focused on married couples or couples with registered partnerships who also live together in 17 European countries and in Israel, thus drawing on data from more than 33,700 respondents. In this sample, 31.11% of female and 29.41% of male respondents reported low quality of life. Explanatory factors for individual well-being included sociodemographic factors (gender, age, education attainment, employment status, area of location) as well as individual and partner’s health.

Individuals whose partner suffers from depression are 51% more likely to experience low quality of life

Overall, Pascual‑Sáez et al. find that partners’ mental health has a large and significant association with individual quality of life and thus confirm previous research on the interdependence of couples’ well-being. Individuals whose partner had reported poor mental health had a 51% higher risk to experience low quality of life themselves. In addition to an indirect spillover effect of depression on partners who feel empathy with the affected individual, Pascual‑Sáez et al. suggest that living with a partner with poor mental health also implies less free time and more caregiving responsibilities, which can result in caregiver stress and a subsequent decline in quality of life.

Further factors contributing to an increased probability of reporting low quality of life were poor self-assessed health, old age (highest risk in the age cohort 80 and over), being female, being unemployed, and living in a Mediterranean country. Protective against experiencing low quality of life were a high educational level, participation in the workforce, and living in a rural area.

Policies need to acknowledge the social dimension of depression

While direct challenges of mental health issues such as a negative impact on individual well-being and rising costs for healthcare are broadly recognized, indirect effects such as the impact on the closest environment still receive only little attention. Given their findings, the researchers encourage policies acknowledging the social dimension of well-being in general and of mental health in particular as well as the impact of depression on the domestic partner who often also acts as main caregiver. Future interventions consequently should address the reduction or alleviation of mental health problems and include social support for individuals who are dealing with depression in their household.

Study by Marta Pascual‑Sáez, David Cantarero‑Prieto and Carla Blázquez‑Fernández (2019): Partner’s Depression and Quality of Life among Older Europeans. The European Journal of Health Economics (20) 2019, 1093–1101.


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