Participating in Social Groups to Help Manage Depression
Participation in social groups may be an effective way to manage mild to moderate depression, according to a new study from researchers at The University of Queensland, Australia. It can be especially for useful for people seeking to stop using antidepressants, they note.
About 13% of adults use antidepressants, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including about 8% of men and nearly 18% of women. The use of antidepressants has been increasing in recent years, especially among women.
The research, led by Genevieve A. Dingle, Ph.D., involved a systematic review of 28 social group programs aimed at helping manage depression. They did not look at formal therapy or prescription usage.
The groups in the review I were focused on activities like arts (10 groups, such as creative writing, drumming and singing); exercise (13 groups, such as walking, jogging, dancing, yoga, and Qigong); and five others, such as a horticultural group and a creative play group for mothers and infants. Each was facilitated by an experienced professional. The average length of the programs was 31 hours over 15 weeks. Fourteen studies used a randomized controlled trial design, most included a wait list or untreated control group. Several included active controls including comparison group such as social support, medication, individual exercise and a music therapy group. The other studies used non-randomized designs, such as a controlled comparison or pre-post design.
While the research doesn’t identify how the social groups work to improve depression symptoms, it worked equally well across the wide variety of types of groups. The authors suggest that the delivery and engagement are key, which was promoted using various methods such as discussion or synchronized activity. The researchers conclude that “social group interventions offer a meaningful and effective way of managing depression and offer a viable approach to be used alongside antidepressant medication tapering and discontinuation.”
An earlier study from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research compared the impact of participation in group therapy at a psychiatric hospital on depression symptoms and participation in community groups with activities, such as sewing, yoga, sports or art. Across both groups, individuals who strongly identified with the group, felt a part of it, and felt supported because everyone was "in it together" received greater benefits in reducing depression symptoms. For people with depression, finding a group that the person connects with and identifies with is a key component to gaining mental health benefits.
Similarly, Dingle and colleagues suggest that, because they did not find a particular type of group activity was superior, “patients can be encouraged to select based on their interests, needs, and the availability of social programs in their local area.”
Finding Support Groups
Below are some organizations offering connections to support groups—both in-person and virtual. As these organizations note, these groups are not a substitute for diagnosis and treatment by a mental health professional, but many people find them helpful in managing symptoms of depression.
- Mental Health America Support Groups – Mental Health America hosts a support community through Inspire which enables individuals to connect on depression and a variety of issues and topics related to mental health. In-person support is also available through local Mental Health America affiliates.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) Support Groups – ADAA offers English language anonymous peer-to-peer online anxiety and depression support group and a Spanish-language online support group that are free, friendly, safe and supportive places for individuals and their families to share information and experiences.
- Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) Support Groups – DBSA chapters across the country offer support groups, some online and some in-person.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Support Groups – NAMI Connection Recovery Support Group is a free, peer-led support group for any adult who has experienced symptoms of a mental health condition. NAMI Family Support Group is a peer-led support group for any adult with a loved one who has experienced symptoms of a mental health condition.
- Dingle, GA, et al. The effects of social group interventions for depression: Systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders. 281 (2021) 67–81
- Brody DJ, Gu Q. Antidepressant Use Among Adults: United States, 2015-2018, NCHS Data Brief, no 377. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020.