For all of the treatments available for clinical depression, no single one reliably works for everyone. One person may improve on Wellbutrin, while another finds relief from a therapist. It’s a maddening, time-consuming trial-and-error effort.
Worse yet, most people don’t even bother seeking out treatment for their depression. They stumble through life in depression’s gray haze, trying to make the best of things by using whatever coping skills they’ve got. Friends. Alcohol. Work. Video games. Exercise.
But what if simply listening to someone teach you about depression — like in a classroom — could actually help treat it?
The good news is that recently published research suggests this simple kind of intervention may work. At least for some people with mild depression.
The study, by Morokuma and colleagues (2013), examined 34 adults in Japan with major depression diagnoses. The group was divided into two with one group receiving treatment as usual (antidepressant medication) and the other receiving treatment as usual + psychoeducation. Neither group was in psychotherapy at the time of the study.
Psychoeducation can take many forms, such as simply reading and learning more about one’s disorder from a self-help book or a website like this one. In this study, psychoeducation took the form of a small group lecture series, in which participants were taught all about depression and simple problem solving. The 6 sessions lasted an hour and a half long, each.
The researchers measured progress by whether subjects in the study relapsed, but they also measured depression severity and its symptoms through two short depression quizzes (the HRSD-17 and the BDI-II).
What did they find?
The researchers found that after 9 months, the psychoeducation group had a depression remission rate of 58.8 percent. The treatment-as-usual group had a remission rate of 20 percent. Clearly, those who were in the psychoeducation group did better.
On the two depression measures, the psychoeducation group also did better at the 9-month mark, halving their scores on both. The treatment-as-usual group found their scores increased.
The main limitation of the study is that the researchers claim their psychoeducation intervention was typical of psychoeducation. The one and half hour sessions, however, had a lot of similarities to group therapy. They started with a 20-30 minute teaching component, but the remaining time was spent for “group discussions using problem-solving techniques:”
In the group meeting, participants were encouraged to raise questions of any kind that they wanted to know or solve. There were a variety of questions raised… We focused on how to cope with family members and the boss at the workplace, prompting use of the problem-solving techniques among the participants.
Although the researchers claim they did not use psychotherapeutic techniques in their sessions, learning and applying problem-solving skills is indeed something in the cognitive-behavioral arsenal of psychotherapeutic techniques. In addition, encouraging group participation and establishing a seemingly therapeutic relationship (“the patients also enjoyed long and close contact with mental health professionals”) with the group probably also resulted in characteristics we’d typically find in psychotherapy.
So, perhaps unwittingly, the researchers’ efforts were tainted by psychotherapy components seeping into their psychoeducational efforts. And the subjects in the study suffered from only mild depression.
Could psychoeducation alone help people with depression? Undoubtedly. But there’s a big difference between something resembling a group session, and watching YouTube videos or reading a self-help book. This study doesn’t answer the question of whether more passive psychoeducational efforts would be just as effective.
This small study demonstrates the power of a few simple sessions of teaching basic problem-solving skills. It suggests that interventions can be done pretty easily on a wider, population-sized scale, with most people enjoying some benefit from the effort.
Ippei Morokuma, Shinji Shimodera, Hirokazu Fujita, Hiroshi Hashizume, Naoto Kamimura, Aoi Kawamura, Atsushi Nishida, Toshiaki A. Furukawa, Shimpei Inoue. (2013). Psychoeducation for major depressive disorders: A randomised controlled trial. Psychiatry Research, 210, 134-139.