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Marital loss, mental health and the role of perceived social support: findings from six waves of an Australian population based panel study
  1. Belinda Hewitt1,
  2. Gavin Turrell2,
  3. Katrina Giskes3
  1. 1Institute for Social Science Research, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
  2. 2Institute for Health and Biomedical Innovation & School of Public Health, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia
  3. 3School of Public Health, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Belinda Hewitt, University of Queensland Research Fellow, Institute for Social Science Research, GPN3, Building 39a, Room 401, University of Queensland, Brisbane 4072, Australia; b.hewitt{at}


Objectives To investigate the impact of transitions out of marriage (separation, widowhood) on the self reported mental health of men and women, and examine whether perceptions of social support play an intervening role.

Methods The analysis used six waves (2001–06) of an Australian population based panel study, with an analytical sample of 3017 men and 3225 women. Mental health was measured using the MHI-5 scale scored 0–100 (α=0.97), with a higher score indicating better mental health. Perceptions of social support were measured using a 10-item scale ranging from 10 to 70 (α=0.79), with a higher score indicating higher perceived social support. A linear mixed model for longitudinal data was used, with lags for marital status, mental health and social support.

Results After adjustment for social characteristics there was a decline in mental health for men who separated (−5.79 points) or widowed (−7.63 points), compared to men who remained married. Similar declines in mental health were found for women who separated (−6.65 points) or became widowed (−9.28 points). The inclusion of perceived social support in the models suggested a small mediation effect of social support for mental health with marital loss. Interactions between perceived social support and marital transitions showed a strong moderating effect for men who became widowed. No significant interactions were found for women.

Conclusion Marital loss significantly decreased mental health. Increasing, or maintaining, high levels of social support has the potential to improve widowed men's mental health immediately after the death of their spouse.

  • Mental health
  • marital status
  • marital loss
  • life course
  • gender
  • gender inequalities
  • longitud surveys SI
  • mental health DI
  • social factors IN
  • sociology FQ

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  • Funding This work was supported by funding to BH from the Australian Research Council (grant number DP0770586) and University of Queensland New Staff Research Start-up grant. GT is supported by an Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Senior Research Fellowship (ID 390109). This research uses unit record data from the Households Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey funded by the Commonwealth Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and conducted by the Melbourne Institute for Social and Economic Research (MISER) at the University of Melbourne. The research findings are the product of the researcher and should not be attributed to FaHCSIA or MISER.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.