That's the finding Steven Beach, a professor at the University of Georgia, discussed at this weekend's AAMFT Research Conference in Alexandria, VA. Research has shown for many years (1, 2) that marital satisfaction and depression can be greatly improved at the same time through couples treatment, regardless of which problem came first. However, new data from Beach and his colleagues suggests that when women are struggling with both depression and marital problems, individual therapy for depression will have negative effects on the relationship if the marital discord came first -- suggesting worse outcomes for the depression as well.
Why should this matter to MFTs, who are eminently qualified to identify and treat both issues? Because most depressed people don't start by seeking treatment from a family therapist. According to a 2009 NAMI survey on depression, people with depression usually receive treatment from their primary care physicians. Just 38% receive their primary depression treatment through a mental health professional of any kind. Physicians tend to treat depression with medication and/or referral for individual therapy. They rarely refer for couples therapy, in spite of the research supporting such referrals. The list of possible reasons for this disconnect is long, but some reasonable guesses include that physicians may not know the research, may not have a trusted marriage therapist to whom they can send clients, or simply may not think to ask depressed patients about relationship difficulties (an area of struggle patients may not bring up on their own).
Beach and his colleagues believe that the link between depression and relationship difficulty is so strong that physicians ought to screen for relationship problems whenever they are diagnosing a patient with depression and considering treatment options. They developed a simple 10-item screening measure for relationship problems, with an 11th question for those who show relationship difficulty: Which came first?
Notes: Two quick things about the research base here: 1, the studies of marital therapy to treat depression have universally, as best as I can tell, looked at depressed women. Whether the suggested treatment course and likely outcomes would be the same with depressed men is open to question. 2, while studies have looked at marital therapy and marital satisfaction, there is no reason to believe that non-married people in committed relationships have a different kind of link between depression and relationship difficulty. The screening instrument can be used for married and nonmarried couples alike.