THE BLOG
02/18/2011 11:44 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Should You Divorce Someone Who's Suicidal?

Recently, a popular Northern California high school teacher left a cryptic message for her students and then disappeared. She was found dead a few days later in a creek near her house, a mix of booze and drugs in her system. In the past year, she'd experienced the death of a few close relatives. Then her husband filed for divorce.

Can divorce be a tipping point when someone is emotionally unstable or mentally ill?

Maybe, because divorce doesn't have such a great track record.

Even the "best" divorces are stressful; it's second on the stress meter right after death of a spouse, after all. But add something like mental illness into the mix, and there's a lot more to stress about. And there are a lot of people living with mental disorders in the United States, about 1 in 4 adults in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. About 1 in 17 have a serious mental disorder such as bipolar, schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder.

A sobering fact is that more than 90 percent of those who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental disorder, accounting for the tens of thousands of suicides each year (34,300 in 2007 alone). And many of them are men. In fact, four times as many men commit suicide than women, although women attempt suicide more often -- two to three times as often as men. One of the reasons listed is divorce.

It's no surprise that divorce plays a factor in suicide. Your life feels like it's been slipped out from under you like a rug. For some, divorce is so devastating that they believe they have nothing to live for. Divorced people are three times more likely to commit suicide than those who are married. Again, it is men who are more at risk; one study found that divorced men have twice the risk of suicide than married men.

Not only can divorce spur depression, but depression can, evidently, spur divorce.

Marriages in which one spouse is depressed are nine times more likely to end up in divorce, according to Laura Epstein Rosen and Xavier Francisco Amador, authors of When Someone You Love is Depressed: How to Help Your Loved One Without Losing Yourself. That's a pretty depressing number. It isn't depression itself that sends a couple to divorce attorneys, however, but the consequences of not addressing the depression, experts say. And most of us aren't very good at that.

"Our loved ones see our illness far differently than we do," writes John McManamy, an award-winning mental health journalist and author who has bipolar disorder and blogs at McMan's Depression and Bipolar Web. "We may complain that they don't understand us, but far too many of us fail to recognize the horrible abuse we have put them through."

It isn't easy living with someone who has a mental illness, nor does everyone reach such a happy ending as the story of John Forbes Nash Jr., a Princeton mathematician and schizophrenic who was the subject of 2001's A Beautiful Mind. Often a depressed spouse withdraws or cheats. Sometimes the spouse of the depressed person feels responsible and becomes more of a caretaker than a partner. Not only is that exhausting, but it doesn't make for a happy, healthy marriage.

Even treatments for mental illness can cause problems in a marriage; many of the meds can impact a person's sexual responses and desire. Plus there is still a lot of shame and guilt surrounding mental illness, although there's more awareness now than ever before.

But if one spouse has a serious mental disorder and maybe has even talked about suicide, how does one even ask for a divorce if whatever problems in the marriage can't be resolved?

Very carefully, I suppose, if at all. At least that's how it is for a friend. His wife has struggled with depression for most of her life and refuses to take any meds. While he would do just about anything to have a more loving and sexual marriage, he won't even consider a divorce, mostly because of their children. And because she has often talked about suicide, and even attempted it, and he struggles with the thought of her offing herself if they split. So, he stays married -- frustrated and walking on eggshells.

That doesn't make for a happy, healthy marriage, either.

While it may seem cruel to divorce someone who's suicidal, part of removing the stigma of mental illness is accepting that everyone, mentally ill or not, is not only marriageable but divorceable, too.

What would you do?