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Study on Social Support and Depression

A new study found that social support during times of stress can lessen the impact of genetic risk for depression.

The study was published by a University of Michigan team in the American Journal of Psychiatry and uses data from two significantly different groups under stress: older adults whose spouses have recently passed, and new doctors in their most year of training.

The research utilizes polygenic risk score, which is based on decades of research on minuscule variations in certain genes and their connection to depression risk.

Individuals in the study who had higher risk scores also had higher rates of depression after they lost social support compared to individuals who had low risk scores.

But they also had lower rates of depression when they gained social support in their stressful times.

The study used data from two long-term researches, the Intern Health Study and the Health and Retirement Study.

The former enrolls first-year medical students, who are also referred to as interns, and the latter is University of Michigan Institute for Social Research-based and is funded by the National Institute on Aging.

The data for the current study is based on over a thousand interns across the country and from 435 recently widowed individuals.

For both groups, depressive symptoms increased. For the interns, their symptoms increased by 126% during their year of training.

For the widows, the symptoms increased 34% compared to their scores before widowhood.

The interns who had lost social support from their pre-internship days and had the highest polygenic scores also had the highest scores on measures of depressive symptoms later on during their internship year.

Individuals who had the same high level of genetic predisposition that gained social support had much lower depressive symptoms, even lower compared to their peers with low genetic risk.

The researchers refer to this as the “crossover effect.”

Even though some widowed individuals reported growth in social support––unlike the interns–– the crossover effect also occurred for them.

When compared to their peers with similar risk who had lost social support, those with high genetic risk for depression who experienced social support exhibited a noticeably smaller increase in depressive symptoms.

There were also some widows whose depressive symptoms remained unchanged despite either not experiencing a change in their social support system or losing it.

First author and University of Michigan psychology doctoral student Jennifer Clearly mentions the importance of looking into this group’s history in light of whether they have done any caregiving for their spouses with a long-term illness.

The team hopes other researchers will examine this connection in other populations. In other words, how stress, genetic risk, and social support interact in other population.

Prof. Srijan Sen, director of the Eisenberg Family Depression Center and Clearly explain that the message for people who are going through stressful times or are watching a relative or friend go through stressful times, is to support and maintain or strengthen connections with them.

They note that doing so can have benefits for both sides.

Although the study did not delve into the role of professional mental health, individual and group therapy is an important option for people who are experiencing mental health issues.

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