Research Activities March 2013, No. 391

Having poor family relationships increases the risk for depression

Mental Health

Treatment for depression tends to focus on individual interventions, such as medication and psychotherapy. However, studies show that social support can protect against the development of depression. In fact, a new study found that individuals who reported not being very close to family members had a threefold increased risk for depression compared to those who felt "very close" to family. The study used a sample population of 6,082 persons participating in a national survey that focuses on racial and ethnic differences in mental disorders. The majority of individuals surveyed were African Americans, Caribbean blacks, and non-Hispanic whites. Those surveyed were asked questions about how close they felt towards family and friends. Researchers measured the risk of depression by using standard diagnostic criteria.

Most of the participants reported overall closeness with family and friends. Caribbean Blacks and non-Hispanic whites reported feeling very close to friends at higher rates than African Americans. Blacks had lower risk of depression compared to non-Hispanic whites. This association continued, even after the researchers controlled for social support variables and demographics. They point out, however, that a lower risk of depression among blacks does not mean they are less vulnerable to depression. In reality, blacks are more likely than whites to be underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed. When they are diagnosed with depression, it tends to be more chronic and severe. These findings confirm earlier studies documenting the important relationship between social support and depression. The researchers suggest that perhaps a re-examination of individualistic models of treatment that are most evaluated in the United States may be in order. They call for more clinical trials to study the effects of social support interventions on risk of depression. Their study was supported in part by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS19470).

See "Racial/ethnic disparities, social support, and depression: Examining a social determinant of mental health," by Ruth S. Shim, M.D., M.P.H., Jiali Ye, Ph.D., Peter Baltrus, Ph.D., and others in the Winter 2012 Ethnicity & Disease 22, pp. 15-20.


Page last reviewed March 2013
Page originally created March 2013
Internet Citation: Having poor family relationships increases the risk for depression. Content last reviewed March 2013. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.