Peer support offers promise as an effective, low-cost tool for fighting depression, a new study by the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and University of Michigan Health System finds.

Researchers analyzed 10 randomized trials of peer support interventions for depression dating from 1987 to 2009 and found programs in which patients and volunteers share information were found to reduce symptoms of depression better than traditional care alone and were about as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Groundbreaking study

According to lead author Paul Pfeiffer, M.D., M.S., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and researcher at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, the study was the first of its kind to look at peer support specifically for depression, which is much less likely to be incorporated into the treatment of depression than for other conditions like alcohol or substance abuse.

"Our study combined data from small randomized trials and found peer support seems to be as effective for treating depression as some of the more established treatments," said Pfeiffer.

Peer support has been found to decrease isolation, reduce stress, increase the sharing of health information and provide role models, the study points out.

It can be cost effective, too. Pfeiffer said because peer support programs often use volunteers and nonprofessionals -- and can be done over the phone or Internet as well as in person -- they have the potential to be widely available at relatively low cost.

More assitance needed

Pfeiffer said the need for additional coping options is important, considering one third of patients taking anti-depressants for depression still experience significant symptoms after trying four medicines, and more than half of people who achieve remission of their symptoms relapse within a year.

"As a field, we should be looking at how to integrate peer support components into primary care and specialty treatment of depression," Pfeiffer said, noting that additional, larger studies could also provide more insight.

The study findings were recently published online ahead of print publication in General Hospital Psychiatry.