The Importance of Face-to-Face Contact in Depression Treatment and Prevention

We are living in a time when social media and mobile technologies give us the illusion of greater connection than ever before. With a few keystrokes, I can share my thoughts, experiences, and pictures of what I had for lunch with countless strangers around the globe. My Facebook gives me daily updates on the lives of everyone from my closest friends to high school classmates whose names I barely remember to a man with whom I once shared an airport shuttle and never saw again. For years, however, some have argued these mediated social experiences ring hollow; they are missing the key components of human interaction that make in-person social experiences so meaningful. Now, new research lends support to this view, and offers new insights into the essential nature of face-to-face contact to combat depression.

Face-to-Face Contact Can Protect Against Depression

A recent study released in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society examined the effect of various modes of social contact on rates of depression amongst seniors. Working with a group of 11,065 adults, a team of researchers led by Dr. Alan Teo surveyed the participants regarding their “social contacts, interpersonal conflicts, ability to complete activities of daily living, and any depressive symptoms.” The surveys were repeated within 2 years to track psychological and behavioral changes. When the results were analyzed and appropriate control measures were taken, the researchers found that 11.5% those who had limited in-person contact with friends and family experienced depressive symptoms within two years, compared to 7.3% of those who had in-person contact once or twice a month. Most strikingly, only 6% of subjects who reported in-person contact 3 or more times each week experienced depressive symptoms. The nature of the relationship also appears to influence the protective benefits of face-to-face contact; for those between 50 and 69, meeting with friends offered the greatest benefits, while meeting with children was most effective for those 70 and older. Written contact showed no impact on rates of depression and telephone contact offered no protective benefits against depression, although it did alleviate existing depressive symptoms.

Towards Greater Understanding of Social Needs

While it has long been known that social isolation contributes to psychological distress, Dr. Teo’s study marks the first time the particular mode and nature of social interaction have been analyzed. Psychiatrist Robert Abrams of Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital says:

The details of oppressing isolation haven’t been explored to this extent. Everybody knows that isolation isn’t good, but (knowing) exactly what kind of contact and with whom and what mode is most helpful … on a public health scale.

With almost 8% of people aged 50 or older reportedly experiencing depression, this research may have significant implications for depression treatment amongst seniors. However, it is reasonable to extrapolate that if in-person contact offers preventive and curative properties for depression in seniors, it can also play a significant role in maintaining or restoring emotional wellness in younger populations.

What remains to be seen is exactly how face-to-face contact confers its unique benefits. It is possible that in-person social interactions offer greater quality of conversation by virtue of increased responsiveness and sensory engagement. Remote communication does not allow for the vital and complex nonverbal/nondiscursive communication in which nuances of emotion are conveyed via facial expression and body language, which serve to strengthen relationships and enhance social understanding. Face-to-face interaction may also encourage important neurochemical changes that fortify well-being and bonding; just as gazing into your dog’s eyes can lead to oxytocin release, so too can eye contact with humans, bringing with it a host of psychological benefits ranging from improved bonding, trust, and sociability to decreased fear, lowered blood pressure, and increased willingness to share difficult emotions. Moreover, spending time with someone in person also offers the possibility of physical contact, which also floods the brain with oxytocin.

Depression Treatment in a Social Environment

The groundbreaking research offers not only new possibilities for treatment, but also lends support to the special efficacy of existing treatment programs that seek to break social isolation. Residential treatment programs, in particular, can provide immersive social and therapeutic environments that optimize the healing of people of all ages struggling with depression. By combining intensive, evidence-based therapies with ongoing social integration and support from both clinicians and peers, you can experience the benefits of sustained, meaningful interactions while engaging in effective therapeutic practices to restore psychological tranquility. Additionally, specialized family support services can help you nurture significant relationships in your life to increase positive social interactions when you complete treatment and return to everyday life, strengthening both your support network and your ability to build a richer, more fulfilling life. Considering recent findings, these opportunities for enhanced social contact may be key components to healing and augment responsiveness to treatment both during residential care and beyond.

Bridges to Recovery offers the highest level of care for people living with depression. Our innovative program is based on a holistic understanding of mental health disorders and seeks to support each person in the way that is right for them. Contact us to learn more about our treatment approach and how we can help you or your loved one on the path to healing.