Dr. Joyce Brothers Overcame Late-in-Life Depression

Tuesday, 14 May 2013 12:34 PM

By Charlotte Libov

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            For more than a half-century, America looked to Dr. Joyce Brothers for the answers to life’s psychological problems. But in her later years, television’s favorite therapist faced her own emotional tailspin.

        The affable psychologist, who died Monday of respiratory failure at age 85, confessed she sank into a suicidal depression after her husband of 40 years died. Severe depression is common after the loss of a spouse, says a top therapist.

            “When you’re married for a long time, you not only lose your partner when your spouse dies, you lose your rhythm of life,” says nationally known psychotherapist Fran Sherman. “The person you talk to, sit with, have coffee with – every single thing about your life changes.”

            Dr. Brothers was long known as the dean of television psychologists. After coming to America’s attention in 1955 as then the second person in history to win “The $64,000 Question,” she went on to become an author, radio, and prolific television show guest, appearing everywhere from “The Tonight Show,” which she visited 100 times to “The Simpsons.” She was still writing the daily syndicated advice column she began in 1960 when she died.

            But Dr. Brothers found herself engulfed by despair after she lost her beloved husband, diabetes specialist Milton J. Brothers, to cancer in 1989.

       “When my husband died after an 18-month battle with cancer, I thought my life was over. There was nothing I wanted to live for. I was full of tears and self-pity. I felt lost and frightened and lonely,” wrote Dr. Brothers in her book Widowed.

            Such feelings are not unusual, says Sherman, a licensed psychotherapist who has appeared on “Fox News,” “The Today Show,” and many other national television programs.

            “When you lose a spouse you’ve been married to that long, you can fall into a clinical depression. Your brain chemistry can actually change,” she says. “This can happen to anyone, even someone like Joyce Brothers, regardless of their training.

            “Everybody’s different, but such a loss can cause you to sleep too much, you don’t eat, and you basically stop functioning.”

            For Dr. Brothers, the story has a happy ending. She resisted the temptation to end her own life and she used the writing of her book as a therapeutic vehicle to get out of her depression and find happiness again in the 24 years between her husband’s death and her own.

            Anyone, even if they are not a writer, can benefit from pouring out their grief in words, says Sherman.

            “You don’t need to
be an author, you don’t have to be an intellectual, you can just write out your feelings. You can yell at paper, and scream at paper, ‘I miss you, I hate you, I’m angry, I’m lonely’ –it’s a really good way to get your feelings out,” Sherman says.

            Grief counseling can also be a lifesaver, notes Sherman. “Hospices, for example, offer group therapy for people who become widowed. It helps to go through it with people who are sharing the same experience. That can be very comforting,” she says.

            Some people require individual counseling and also medication to deal with their depression, Sherman noted. “With grief can come clinical depression, caused by changes in brain chemicals involving fluctuations of serotonin.”

       Serotonin is the hormone that is thought to influence emotions ranging from sadness to joy. Medication does not have to be long-term, but it can be invaluable in helping the surviving spouse regain their normal functioning, she said.

            Those dealing with grief should make sure they do not isolate themselves from their family and friends, Sherman said. “It’s not that being alone is bad, but you need to reach out to people to help you get through it. There are a lot of community support systems available through churches and synagogues.”

            Dr. Brothers provided an excellent example of how to handle grieving, notes Sherman, who looked upon the on-air psychologist as a role model. “She was a real pioneer. She was the first therapist on TV, and she let us know from her advice and by example that it’s OK to need support.”

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