Joining a support group can reduce symptoms of depression, researchers have found. Talking to and sharing information with people in a similar situation seems to help roughly as much as group therapy led by a health professional.
About 1 in 7 adults get depression serious enough to need treating at some point in their lives. Antidepressant drugs help people with the most severe depression, but don't help much with milder forms. Even when antidepressants do help, many people get depressed again in the future.
Talking treatments like cognitive behaviour therapy aim to teach people how to cope better with symptoms of depression, and how to avoid unhelpful patterns of thought and behaviour. But, despite efforts from the NHS to make talking treatments more widely available, it's not always easy to get an appointment with a trained therapist. Many people face long waiting lists.
A study published this week has looked at whether self-help groups, where people in a similar situation support each other and share information, could help people to recover from a bout of depression.
What does the new study say?
People with depression who joined a self-help group did better than people who just got the usual care from a doctor, and just as well as people who had cognitive behaviour therapy in a group.
The researchers analysed seven previous studies comparing self-help groups with usual care. The studies included 849 people in total. People who joined a support group as well as getting usual care had fewer symptoms of depression, judging by questionnaires designed to measure people's symptoms.
The researchers also analysed seven studies comparing support groups with group therapy sessions run by a trained therapist (some of these studies overlapped with those looking at usual care). The studies included 301 people. There didn't seem to be much difference between a self-help group and group therapy.
How reliable is the research?
By analysing several studies together, the researchers found a benefit to self-help groups, but not all the individual studies had positive results. The better quality studies tended to show a smaller benefit.
Most of the studies looked mainly at women, and some of the individual studies looked at specific groups of people, such as women with postnatal depression, depressed men with HIV, and depressed people who were caring for someone with a serious mental illness. This makes it harder to say whether the results apply to everyone with depression.
The studies looked at different types of self-help groups. Some met over the phone, and others were led by a professional to offer guidance. We don't know whether some types work better than others.
Where does the study come from?
The researchers were based in Michigan, in the US. Their study appeared in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry, which is published by Elsevier.
Funding came from several organisations, including the Veterans Affairs Health Services Research and Development Service, and the Michigan Institute for Clinical and Health Research.
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