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Mental & Emotional Health

In-Person Contact May Protect Vets Against PTSD and Depression

Having regular in-person contact appears to protect against depression and PTSD in veterans, but Facebook contact might not be beneficial.

The results of the study, by Veterans Affairs Portland Health Care System and Oregon Health and Science University researchers, will appear in the Jan. 15, 2019 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders.

“When we look at a head-to-head comparison of time spent socializing on Facebook versus face-to-face,” said lead author Dr. Alan Teo, “it is the time we spend in person with our friends and family that probably matters most to reducing symptoms of depression and PTSD in veterans.”

It’s well known that social isolation is closely linked with negative mental health outcomes, while social support may act as a buffer against stressors that worsen depression, anxiety, or other emotional problems. While in-person social contact is known to lead to better health, there isn’t much research on whether this connection also applies to social media interaction.

To find out, the researchers gave an online survey to 587 veterans who had served since September 2001. The subjects were recruited through Facebook ads, meaning that everyone in the study was a Facebook user. The survey asked participants how often they had social contact with family and friends in person and on Facebook. Each participant was also screened for major depression, PTSD, alcohol use disorder, and suicidality.

The results showed that participants who had in-person contact at least a few times per week had about 50 percent lower odds for both major depression and PTSD symptoms compared with participants who saw friends and family infrequently. The researchers cautioned that the results can’t prove a direct cause and effect between social contact and better health. While this and other research suggests that social relationships may directly affect health, it may also be that mental health conditions lead to more social isolation.

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The frequency of social contact through Facebook did not affect risk for depression or PTSD. Neither in-person nor Facebook interaction frequency affected risk for alcohol use disorder or suicidality for the study group.

Lack of face-to-face time with family and friends may pose a special risk to the mental health of veterans.

Social media use has become increasingly common in recent years. The average Facebook user spends 50 minutes per day on the platform. As the researchers explain, “In today’s world, communication with friends and family online–and particularly through social media–is part of daily life.” While the study’s results suggest that frequent Facebook users are also very social in real life, it is their in-person interactions that seem to guard against psychiatric problems.

The researchers conclude that lack of face-to-face time with family and friends may pose “a unique and specific risk” to the mental health of veterans, who tend to have higher rates of depression and PTSD than the general population. Social contact over the internet is no substitute for in-person interaction, say the researchers.

According to Teo, doctors should keep in mind the importance of in-person contact when treating patients. “I think the excitement in the VA and other health systems about the opportunities associated with online interventions is great. But at the same time, this study is a bit of a reminder that the foundation to good mental health care probably starts with promoting good, old-fashioned social connections,” he said.


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