New research has shown that reaching out to a friend or relative going through a stressful time could help reduce their risk of depression, particularly if their genetic make-up means they are more vulnerable to the condition.

The importance of social support during stressful periods has been highlighted in a new study which says it can make a huge difference for people with the highest genetic risk for depression.

Researchers analysed data from two groups of people under stress – a group of new doctors going through an intense year of training, and a group of recently widowed older people.

They used a measure called a polygenic risk score, which takes into account small variations in certain genes that have been associated with depression risk.

By using this measure and then looking at what social support the two groups received, the team were able to identify how important those social connections can be.

The doctors and widows with a higher risk of depression experienced higher rates of the condition when social support was withdrawn, compared to those with a lower risk of depression.

First author Jennifer Cleary, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Michigan who is carrying out her research with senior author Dr Srijan Sen, said: “Our data show wide variability in the level of social support individuals received during these stressful times, and how it changed over time.

“We hope these findings, which incorporate genetic risk scores as well as measures of social support and depressive symptoms, illuminate the gene-environment interactions and specifically the importance of social connection in depression risk.”

Sen, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, said more research is needed into how genetic variations lead to people developing depression, saying: “Further understanding the different genetic profiles associated with sensitivity to loss of social support, insufficient sleep, excessive work stress and other risk factors could help us develop personalised guidance for depression prevention.

“In the meantime, these findings reaffirm how important social connections, social support and individual sensitivity to the social environment are as factors in wellbeing and preventing depression.”

Read the full study in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

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