Midlife Crisis: Depression or Normal Transition?

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What’s a midlife crisis? It’s the stuff of jokes and stereotypes — the time in life when you do outrageous, impractical things like quit a job impulsively, buy a red sports car, or dump your spouse.

For years, midlife crisis conjured those images. But these days, the old midlife crisis is more likely to be called a midlife transition — and it’s not all bad.

The term crisis often doesn’t fit, mental health experts say, because while it can be accompanied by serious depression, it can also mark a period of tremendous growth. The trick, of course, is to realize when the transition is developing into depression or into an opportunity for growth depends on a number of factors, including support from partners and other loved ones.

Sherman recalls a woman who came to her for counseling. She was in her late 40s, married to a man about the same age who had traveled extensively for his job throughout their marriage. That left her with full-time household responsibility, raising the kids.

She had been a nurse, but gave that up to be a full-time parent. When the kids went off to college, she thought, “What now?” Sherman says. The woman told her she felt she had lost her whole identity.

The husband, who also talked to Sherman, became concerned after his wife spent nearly a week sleeping and crying.

The next time Sherman saw the woman in therapy, she offered her an alternative thought: “You’re not losing your identity. You have an opportunity to create a new one.”

Yes, her parenting role would change, but having much less responsibility — as her kids were now in college — would free her up to develop a new image and identity. The thought appealed to her. The next week, she went to a college placement service to explore her options.

When Midlife Crisis Turns Into Depression

Not everyone glides through their midlife transition that easily, of course, Jones says.

In midlife, people need to be aware of symptoms of serious depression, such as:

When Midlife Crisis Turns Into Depression: What Helps?

Behavior or “>antidepressant , can help treat major or clinical depression, says Anita H. Clayton, MD, professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

In a study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Stanford University researchers compared medication alone, talk therapy alone, or a combination in 656 persons with chronic depression. They found that the combination produces a faster, fuller remission of chronic depression.

If depression is milder, Clayton says, a single approach may be enough.