Friends may really be the best medicine for depression

The news has been hard on anti-depressants – calling them little better than placebos with side-effects.  So, if you’re depressed, what can help?

Find a group.

A new review of research on depression shows that a peer group can help reduce symptoms of depression with similar if not better results than cognitive behavior therapy and other traditional care methods.

Dr. Paul Pfeiffer, M.S., assistant profession of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School, reviewed 10 randomized clinical trials from 1989-2009 of peer group based interventions for depression.

He found that getting the support of a peer group has been shown to decrease feelings of isolation and reduces stress. The great part is that in a group people are able to share information on healthy habits and their own personal stories of struggle and eventual success, improving their lives in multiple ways.

That’s just the beginning.  Other specific studies on the subject shows that peer groups can be helpful to many in their healing process.

For example:

A study that looked at the role family and peer support had on African American males who reported suicidal thoughts and suffered from depression found that giving both family and peer support decreased both suicidal thoughts and depression.

Another study found that mothers who were suffering from post partum depression improved after participating in a 12 week telephone based peer support program.

The success of these research studies as well as the ones Pfeiffer reviewed shows that peer groups for depression may be far more helpful than previously thought. Mental Health America advocates for peer groups in its position statement:

“Peer support programs provide an opportunity for consumers who have significantly recovered from their illness to assist others in the recovery process to direct their recovery process by teaching one another the skills necessary to lead meaningful lives in the community.”

As a result, peer support groups are being developed for returning troops who suffer from PTSD, anxiety, stress and depression. Buddy-to-Buddy is a program formed from the support of the Welcome Back Veterans Initiative as a way to provide veterans with the type of support that their peers can offer – and personal shared understanding of the experience of war. Much like those who are in the throws of depression, having someone with you who has a shared experience of what it feels like to be in the Dark Night of the Soul may be invaluable to their own recovery.

It’s important to note that Dr. Pfeiffer stops short of stating that peer support groups is the best treatment for depression. There is often a need for a larger treatment plan.  Fortunately there are many options that can help people recover from depression, including: behavioral therapies, diet, exercise, Complementary and Alternative Medicine treatments (e.g. acupuncture, herbal treatments) and meditation. Peer support groups could be a good compliment to any one of the treatments above or it could stand alone for some individuals.

Most of us have informal peer groups that have helped support us through the most difficult times in our lives.  Bringing that community impact to those who are suffering from mental health issues may be a next step in the fight against depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

— Makenna Berry

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