There is an open-access article in the British Journal of Psychiatry by Mead and colleagues titled ‘Effects of befriending on depressive symptoms and distress: systematic review and meta-analysis‘. The researchers cite evidence that suggests over 500 voluntary sector organisations and charities in the UK offer befriending service. That’s a very impressive number. So what did the researchers conclude? Essentially the researchers thought that befriending benefits those with depressive symptoms in both the short and long term.
The researchers look at studies which included people over the age of 14. This was a very broad age range. The befriending needed to be provided as a free service regardless of whether the befrienders were paid or unpaid. The researchers wanted to ensure that befriending focused on the relationship and that it was emotionally supportive. They contacted authors of the included studies regarding these factors. There were various comparison groups which included treatment as usual.
The researchers considered allocation masking as one quality indicator. In other words the researchers in the included studies did not know which people would be included in which arm of the study. This is used to avoid selection bias. The other indicator was that follow-up results were recorded in at least 80% of the participants. Short term was classed as less than 12 months and long-term more than 12 months. 24 studies were included. Befriending was delivered mainly as face-to-face contact but telephone contact was also used in some studies.
The studies included diverse populations across the lifespan which the authors also comment on. The included studies used various measures of depression including the Beck Depression Inventory and the Geriatric Depression Scale. The Funnel Plot for the change in depressive symptoms was asymmetrical and favoured a benefit for the befriending. Indeed for befriending versus usual care the standardised mean difference was -0.27 (95% CI -0.48 to -0.06). Befriending was less effective on the depressive symptom outcome measure than Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Five studies looked at the longer term benefit for befriending on depressive symptoms. The standardised mean difference for depressive symptoms between befriending and treatment as usual was -0.18 (95% CI -0.32 to -0.05) for the longer term.
The researchers have shown a significant difference between the groups. There were more complex results when social outcome measures were used and when different comparator groups were analysed. These results tended to be very specific to the populations being examined. In summary however the researchers have identified an overall benefit across the investigated populations. The main difficulty however is that depressive symptoms are not the same as depression. Thus its possible to score highly on depressive symptoms on an assessment tool without being depressed. Similarly an improvement in the depressive symptoms is not the same as remission. Comparing different outcome measures is also difficult but has been statistically managed through the use of the standardised mean difference.
The study does provide evidence of a benefit for befriending which fits with an understanding of the wider benefits of social networks whilst at the same time highlighting the importance of the nature of the relationships also.
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