"Low levels of face-to-face social contact 'can double depression risk'"

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Researchers find people who meet friends and family at least three times a week far less like to have depression than those who have only 'virtual contact'

Replacing face-to-face contact with friends and family with emails, text messages and phone calls could double the risk of depression, a major study suggests.

Research on 11,000 adults found that those who meet friends and family at least three times a week are far less likely to suffer from depression.

Individuals who had such contact just once every few months had an 11.5 per cent chance of later suffering from depressive symptoms two years later.

By contrast, those who met up with family and friends at least three times a week had the lowest level of depressive symptoms, with rates of 6.5 per cent.

The study by the University of Michigan, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, is the first to examine the impact of different types of social contact on depression.

Adults aged 50 and over were tracked for more than two years. While strong links were found between face-to-face contact and depression, regularity of contact with loved-ones by telephone, email or social media was shown to make no difference.

Researchers reported that having more or fewer phone conversations, or written or email contact, had no effect on depression.

Dr Alan Teo, lead author and assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, said: "We found that all forms of socialisation aren't equal. Phone calls and digital communication, with friends or family members, do not have the same power as face-to-face social interactions in helping to stave off depression."

The study found that, at different ages, participants benefited from different relationships. The researchers found that among adults aged 50 to 69, frequent face-to-face contact with friends reduced the risk of subsequent depression.

Among those aged 70 and over, contact with children and other family members had the greatest impact.

Original article

Dr Teo said: "Research has long supported the idea that strong social bonds strengthen people's mental health. But this is the first look at the role that the type of communication with loved ones and friends plays in safeguarding people from depression."

Researchers examined the frequency of in-person, telephone and written social contact, including email. Then they looked at the risk of depression symptoms two years later. The study did not prove that lack of face-to-face contact caused the increased risk of depression.

Those who were becoming depressed may have been less likely to choose to see friends and family. However, the study adjusted for potential confounding factors including pre-existing depression.

Earlier this year, British research found that upbeat moods among friends can be contagious - but depression did not have a similar impact.

Researchers at the universities of Manchester and Warwick studied 2,000 teenagers to see if their social groups could influence how they felt about life.

They found that having mentally-stable, happy friends helped to improve the mood of those who were depressed. But, crucially, depressed people did not seem to have an impact on the state of mind of those around them.

The research team used statistical methods usually used to monitor the spread of infectious diseases to find out how mood spread through social networks over 12 months.

Expert advice

Taking antidepressants

Nearly one third of people who try to stop taking antidepressants experience withdrawal symptoms, according to a 2014 survey by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The survey of more than 800 people found that anxiety, dizziness, “head zaps”, stomach upsets, flu-like symptoms and depression were among the most common effects of withdrawal. One quarter of those in the survey were unaware there can be problems linked to stopping antidepressants. The College advises that anyone who wishes to stop taking antidepressant medication should: 

  • Discuss the options with their doctor and be aware of possible withdrawal
  • Choose a good time 
  • Seek support from friends and family and investigate whether you will need time off work 
  • Reduce the dose very slowly 
  • Be prepared to increase the dose again if needed
  • Keep a diary of your symptoms and drug doses
  • Keep an eye on your mood, look after yourself and keep active
  • Practice cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and relaxation techniques
  • Go back to your doctor if you are worried about how you feel