Can psychiatric disorders like depression be prevented, instead of just treated? Well, the obvious answer is also the correct one — yes.
Just like we can all do things to help prevent the spread of the flu or cold viruses in the winter (such as washing your hands regularly), there are also scientifically proven techniques that suggest we’re only a short distance from offering more generalized and practical strategies for preventing depression.
Research published in December 2007 looked at 17 research trials that looked at preventative strategies for depression, either for a primary diagnosis, or for relapse prevention after someone had already been diagnosed with depression. After examining the data and conclusions from these 17 studies, the researchers were optimistic:
The research to date suggests that the prevention of major depression is a feasible goal for the 21st century. If depression prevention interventions become a standard part of mental health services, unnecessary suffering due to depression will be greatly reduced.
And why shouldn’t prevention be a reasonable goal for the first part of the 21st century? So much of our energy and efforts go into treatment after-the-fact, we should instead be more focused on helping to reduce this suffering before it even begins.
In a recent telephone survey of Germans (which results may not be world-generalizable),over 75% of the sample agreed on the possibility that depression is preventable (Schomerus, 2008). Of those, 53% stated that they would take part in prevention programs, and in this group over 58% indicated readiness to pay out of their pocket for such programs.
What would people be willing to do to help prevent depression? Psychosocial and lifestyle related measures were preferred, specifically engaging in a more proactive lifestyle, relying on medicine, and relaxing. I’m not sure how “relying on medicine” is considered a preventative measure, and the research abstract doesn’t elaborate.
Higher education reduced willingness to engage in preventative behaviors. But if you’ve experienced depression in the past or think you are at higher risk to get depression in the future increased a person’s willingness to take part in preventive programs.
Seligman et. al. (2007) found that a cognitive-behavioral psychoeducational skills workshop was also helpful in preventing depressive and anxious feelings. Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on helping people understand how our irrational (and sometimes unconscious) thoughts can lead to our negative feelings and behaviors.
Today, there are dozens of online programs and self-help articles about how to recognize and help the early signs of depression — signs that if not recognized, can lead to major depression. In the years to come, we hope more and more of these interventions can be better utilized to help actually prevent depression.
Alinne Z. Barrera a; Leandro D. Torres a; Ricardo F. Muñoz a. (2007). Prevention of depression: The state of the science at the beginning of the 21st century. Journal International Review of Psychiatry, 19(6), 655 – 670.
Schomerus, G. et. al. (2008). Public attitudes towards prevention of depression. Journal of Affective Disorders, 106(3), 257-263.
Seligman, M. E. P., Schulman, P., & Tryon, A. M. (2007). Group prevention of depression and anxiety symptoms. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45(6), 1111-1126.