Social Connection Is the Most Important External Factor in Lowering Risk of Depression

The measures taken to slow and treat the COVID-19 pandemic have also brought on a mental health crisis. The rates of anxiety and depression have skyrocketed this year, starting with the bushfires that ravaged the country and escalating further when the pandemic hit.

A new study out of the United States has found that social connection might be the answer when it comes to preventing the onset of depression, mindbodygreen has reported.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) looked at data from 100,000 participants and analysed external factors that could affect depression including their social interactions, sleep patterns, diet, social media use, environmental exposures and physical activity.

The researchers were able to deduce which of these elements had the strongest link to depression and in order to determine whether these were a result of correlation or causation, they used a technique called Mendelian randomisation (MR). Identifying these potential risk factors means that, in the long run, mental health providers are able to tailor their treatment to the individual.

Of the 100 factors analysed, social connection was determined to be the most significant protective factor against depression in adults. Confiding in others also proved to be extremely important in preventing depressive feelings.

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

The protective effects of social connection were found to be present even in adults who were considered to have a higher risk of depression due to genetic vulnerability or early life trauma.

Social connection has been extremely hard to achieve given the lockdown measures instated by governments around the world. But, thanks to technology, we do have the opportunity to stay in contact with loved ones, as well as health care officials, through phone and video calls. Making the effort to stay in touch via technology will help keep your mental health on the up.

As for the factors that were associated with an increased risk of depression, these included activities like watching TV and napping. The authors of the study noted that further research was needed to determine whether the risk was due to media exposure, or whether time in front of the TV was a proxy for being sedentary.

To say that research in this area is valuable would be an understatement. According to Beyond Blue, an estimated 45% of people will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. In any one year, roughly one million Australian adults have depression and over two million have anxiety. Further research into mental health causes and treatment is still necessary to help those living with a mental health condition.

“Depression takes an enormous toll on individuals, families, and society, yet we still know very little about how to prevent it,” Smoller said. “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.”

If you or anyone you know is struggling and needs support, call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14, both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. You can also speak with someone confidentially at Headspace by calling 1800 650 890 or chat online here.

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