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Becoming more social helps fight depression

by CIFAR Dec 20 / 13

Doctors may need to start prescribing activity registration forms to depressed patients, according to a new paper that suggests belonging to social groups could both prevent and help cure depression.

Researchers say joining three social groups reduces the risk of depression relapse by 63 percent. (Image: Shutterstock)

The paper published in Social Science & Medicine, co-written by CIFAR Senior Fellow Alex Haslam and Associate Catherine Haslam in the Social Interactions, Identity & Well-Being program, together with other colleagues from the University of Queensland, analyzed data about depression and social groups from over 4000 adults aged 50 and up who had answered survey questions and given interviews as part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.

“Depression is one of a number of health-related problems our team is interested in, largely due to the fact that it has social origins that we ignore all too often,” Catherine Haslam says.

One of the main questions the researchers set out to answer was whether joining social groups could help to treat depression in people already diagnosed with the condition.

The researchers calculated that patients with a history of depression who joined a social group reduced their chance of relapsing by 24 percent. Those who joined three groups were 63 percent less likely to fall back into the rut of depression. Patients who had never suffered from the illness before were also less likely to become depressed.

“These data highlight the valuable therapeutic contribution of social groups, that sadly we are not yet taking full advantage of,” Catherine says.

“We expected to find the effects that we did, but we were taken aback by how large they were,” Alex says.

One explanation for these results, according to the researchers, is that joining an organized social group, such as a club, political party or church, affects how people define themselves and make sense of their lives. Social groups help us achieve this through development of a shared sense of identification and belonging with others, giving our lives meaning and purpose and a means to access support when we need it most.

The results could be valuable for treating a mental illness with a dangerously high rate of recurrence; research shows that the likelihood of depressed patients becoming depressed again during their lives is higher than 80 percent. About a quarter of those treated with behavioural therapy and anti-depressants typically relapse within two years.

By contrast, only 15 percent of the respondents who were part of three or more social groups had relapsed when followed up six years later.

“The sense we have from these data is that unless and until you provide people with meaningful group lives, this will continue to be the case — because you are tackling the symptoms, not the underlying problem,” Alex says.

“Through the sort of work we are doing with CIFAR we are also gaining a much clearer theoretical understanding of why groups have the effects they do.”