Research suggests that depressive disorders exist on a continuum, with subthreshold symptoms causing considerable population burden and increasing individual risk of developing major depressive disorder. An alternative strategy to professional treatment of subthreshold depression is population promotion of effective self-help interventions that can be easily applied by an individual without professional guidance. The evidence for self-help interventions for depressive symptoms is reviewed in the present work, with the aim of identifying promising interventions that could inform future health promotion campaigns or stimulate further research.
A literature search for randomised controlled trials investigating self-help interventions for depressive disorders or depressive symptoms was performed using PubMed, PsycINFO and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Reference lists and citations of included studies were also checked. Studies were grouped into those involving participants with depressive disorders or a high level of depressive symptoms, or non-clinically depressed participants not selected for depression. A number of exclusion criteria were applied, including trials with small sample sizes and where the intervention was adjunctive to antidepressants or psychotherapy.
The majority of interventions searched had no relevant evidence to review. Of the 38 interventions reviewed, the ones with the best evidence of efficacy in depressive disorders were S-adenosylmethionine, St John's wort, bibliotherapy, computerised interventions, distraction, relaxation training, exercise, pleasant activities, sleep deprivation, and light therapy. A number of other interventions showed promise but had received less research attention. Research in non-clinical samples indicated immediate beneficial effects on depressed mood for distraction, exercise, humour, music, negative air ionisation, and singing; while potential for helpful longer-term effects was found for autogenic training, light therapy, omega 3 fatty acids, pets, and prayer. Many of the trials were poor quality and may not generalise to self-help without professional guidance.
A number of self-help interventions have promising evidence for reducing subthreshold depressive symptoms. Other forms of evidence such as expert consensus may be more appropriate for interventions that are not feasible to evaluate in randomised controlled trials. There needs to be evaluation of whether promotion to the public of effective self-help strategies for subthreshold depressive symptoms could delay or prevent onset of depressive illness, reduce functional impairment, and prevent progression to other undesirable outcomes such as harmful use of substances.