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A strong social network can protect against depression, study finds

Forming strong connections with friends or family can help consumers manage symptoms

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As cases of depression continue to grow nationwide, researchers are always looking for ways to treat the condition. A new study conducted by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital found that having a strong social network could help protect against depression. 

“Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, but until now researchers have focused on only a handful of risk and protective factors, often in just one or two domains,” said researcher Karmel Choi, PhD. “Our study provides the most comprehensive picture to date of modifiable factors that could impact depression risk.” 

Staying socially engaged

To understand potential risk factors associated with depression, the researchers evaluated data from the U.K. Biobank. This study included responses from over 100,000 participants and assessed depression-related risks like screen time, physical activity, and sleeping habits, among several others. 

Of all of the risk factors they looked at, the researchers learned that having strong social connections was the most effective in terms of protecting against depression. Participants reported better mental health outcomes when they had cherished relationships in their lives, regardless of whether it was with friends or family. Having that network of people around for support and social engagement was crucial to reducing depression-related symptoms. 

“Far and away the most prominent of these factors was frequency of confiding in others, but also visits with friends and family, all of which highlighted the important protective effect of social connection and social cohesion,” said researcher Dr. Jordan Smoller. “These factors are more relevant now than ever at a time of social distancing and separation from friends and family.” 

While depression affects everyone differently, and there’s no single approach to improving such symptoms, these findings are an important piece of the puzzle when thinking about mental health. The researchers hope that more work can be done in this area to better understand the risks and protective factors associated with depression. 

“Depression takes an enormous toll on individuals, families, and society, yet we still know very little about how to prevent it,” said Dr. Smoller. “We’ve shown that it’s now possible to address these questions of broad public health significance through a large-scale, data-based approach that wasn’t available even a few years ago. We hope this work will motivate further efforts to develop actionable strategies for preventing depression.” 

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