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Social groups may ease depression

March 19, 2014
Courtesy of CIFAR
and World Science staff

Clin­ic­ally de­pressed pa­tients re­cov­er more re­liably if they build strong ties to a so­cial group—whether it be a group for ther­a­py, or some oth­er acti­vity, a study finds.

Re­search­ers at the Ca­na­di­an In­sti­tute for Ad­vanced Re­search in To­ron­to and the Uni­vers­ity of Queens­land in Aus­tra­lia con­ducted two stud­ies of pa­tients di­ag­nosed with de­pres­sion or anx­i­e­ty. The pa­tients ei­ther joined a com­mun­ity group with ac­ti­vi­ties such as sew­ing, yo­ga, sports and art, or group ther­a­py at a psy­chi­at­ric hos­pi­tal.

In both cases, those re­spond­ing to sur­vey ques­tions who did­n’t iden­ti­fy strongly with the group had about a 50 per­cent like­li­hood of con­tin­ued de­pres­sion a month lat­er, the study found. But of those who de­vel­oped a stronger con­nec­tion to the group and who came to see its mem­bers as “us” rath­er than “them,” less than a third still met the cri­te­ria for clin­i­cal de­pres­sion af­ter that time. 

Many pa­tients said the group made them feel sup­ported be­cause eve­ry­one was “in it to­geth­er.”

“We were able to find clear ev­i­dence that join­ing groups, and com­ing to iden­ti­fy with them, can al­le­vi­ate de­pres­sion,” said study co-author Al­ex­an­der Has­lam of the in­sti­tute.

The study is to ap­pear in the Jour­nal of Af­fec­tive Dis­or­ders.

While past re­search has looked at the im­por­tance of so­cial con­nec­tions for pre­vent­ing and treat­ing de­pres­sion, Has­lam said that work has tended to em­pha­size in­ter­per­son­al rela­t­ion­ships rath­er than group ident­ity. Re­search­ers haven’t really un­der­stood why group ther­a­py works, he added: “our work shows that the ‘group’ as­pect of so­cial in­ter­ac­tion is crit­i­cal.”

The re­search­ers say they will next ex­am­ine what fac­tors en­cour­age peo­ple to en­gage with a group and to in­ter­nal­ize its ident­ity, and how this leads them to de­vel­op a sense of sup­port, be­long­ing, pur­pose and mean­ing. Has­lam said this is likely to in­volve both group and in­di­vid­ual fac­tors, in­clud­ing how ac­com­mo­dat­ing the group is, and how the group fits with a per­son’s un­der­stand­ing of them­selves and the world.


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Clinically depressed patients recover more reliably if they build strong ties to a social group—whether it be a therapy group, or some other type, a study finds. Researchers at the Canadian Institute for Avanced Research in Toronto and the University of Queensland conducted two studies of patients diagnosed with depression or anxiety. The patients either joined a community group with activities such as sewing, yoga, sports and art, or group therapy at a psychiatric hospital. In both cases, those responding to survey questions who didn’t identify strongly with the group had about a 50 percent likelihood of continued depression a month later, the study found. But of those who developed a stronger connection to the group and who came to see its members as “us” rather than ‘them,’ less than a third still met the criteria for clinical depression after that time. Many patients said the group made them feel supported because everyone was “in it together.” “We were able to find clear evidence that joining groups, and coming to identify with them, can alleviate depression,” said study co-author Alexander Haslam of the institute. The study is to appear in the Journal of Affective Disorders. While past research has looked at the importance of social connections for preventing and treating depression, Haslam said that work has tended to emphasize interpersonal relationships rather than group identity. Researchers haven’t really understood why group therapy works, he added: “our work shows that the ‘group’ aspect of social interaction is critical.” The researchers say they will next examine are what factors encourage people to engage with a group and to internalize its identity, and how this leads them to develop a sense of support, belonging, purpose and meaning. Haslam said this is likely to involve both group and individual factors, including how accommodating the group is, and how the group fits with a person’s understanding of themselves and the world.