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Get by with a little help from a support group

Consumer Reports News: February 24, 2011 02:18 PM

Some people hate talking about themselves in front of strangers, and others can’t share enough. Which of these types you fit into will probably affect how you feel about self-help groups. These groups are very popular for some medical conditions— Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the best known treatments for alcoholism, despite there not being much evidence that it works. But you might not associate the idea of a self-help group with depression.

A new study, however, suggests that joining a self-help group could be a positive step for people suffering from depression. In the study, people 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 behavioral therapy in a group.

The researchers analyzed 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 their symptoms.
The researchers also looked at seven studies comparing support groups with group therapy 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.

The research isn’t perfect though. Most of the studies looked mainly at women, and some of the individual studies looked at specific groups, such as women with postpartum 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. Another problem is that the better-quality studies tended to show a smaller benefit.

But if you’re struggling to cope with depression, the study suggests that joining a support group could be worth a try. And it’s likely to be a cheaper option than some of the alternatives.

The studies looked at how well self-help groups worked on top of usual care from a doctor, so they shouldn't replace any treatments you're already having. You can get unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking antidepressants suddenly.

What you need to know. Treatments such as talking therapy can help with depression. Antidepressants seem to work for severe depression, but don’t do much for milder forms. Joining a support group might help you feel less isolated, reduce stress, and give you access to health advice from people in a similar situation.

Philip Wilson, patient editor, BMJ Group has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.

For more on depression, read about the causes and treatments (available to subscribers).

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