Contact with others who suffer from depression is effective

People with depression benefit from contact with fellow sufferers. Such contacts can in fact contribute to recovering from depression. That was shown in the PhD research done by Dorien Smit, who will defend her thesis at Radboud University on 1 December. On the basis of Smit’s research, an online platform for people with depression was set up.

The social scientist and remedial pedagogue Dorien Smit had anticipated that people withá depression would feel supported by hearing about the experiences of others. But her research indicated that direct contact does more than offer support. "People want to feel equality, and they experience this more in contact with fellow sufferers than with a psychologist. Participants not only exchange experiences but they also learn from one another, for example by putting their emotions into words and reflecting on their development," Smit explained.

The researcher also found that complaints of depression can decrease after contact with peers. "Peer support can contribute to what we call clinical recovery. Scientific proof of this had been lacking because the effects of contacts with peers are so difficult to measure. However, it became possible by bundling previous research about contact with fellow sufferers. The researchers also held questionnaires and they interviewed people suffering from depression. And then they tested their results with loved ones and healthcare professionals."

Online discussions about depression

Smit carried out the research at Radboud University from the mental healthcare organisation Pro Persona. Together with the patients’ association for people with depression (the Depression Association), she studied how patients’ knowledge and experience can help others. On the basis of the results, they together set up an online platform for people with depression: Depression Connect.

"We asked people with depression what they thought they needed," the PhD candidate said. "They often experience depression as a lonely battle and wanted to have direct contract with peers without necessarily being supervised by a professional." The patients’ association already offered face-to-face contact, so Smit and her colleagues added to this by setting up an online community run by experience experts.

Participants keep a close eye on one another on that platform, Smit added. "For example, they read that others feel good after taking a daily walk and then they remember that they can do that too. In particular, people who have already tried various treatments seem to really benefit from this."

A supplement to therapy

Smit said that the results of her thesis can be used in mental healthcare. "Many people suffer from mental problems, and regular healthcare isn’t always available. So there’s a growing focus on how a client’s network can be used: loved ones but also fellow sufferers. That is good not only from an economic perspective but also psychologically: we’re social beings and find satisfaction from interacting with others."

But this doesn’t mean that contact with peers can replace other treatments, she added. "It isn’t the case that you’ll suddenly recover from depression through these contacts, but they can be a good supplement to therapy or can help you while you’re on a waiting list. But even more important: we should also view mental problems from that social aspect and not just from the biomedical perspective."

Dorien Smit will receive her PhD in the aula of Radboud University at 12:30 pm on Thursday, 1 December 2022. You can download her thesis online .