The mental and physical well-being of formerly depressed college students: a preventive intervention study

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Gortner, Eva-Maria

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This study examined the benefits of a therapeutic writing intervention (Pennebaker, 1989) in a depression-vulnerable student population. In applying the expressive writing paradigm to a depression-vulnerable population, the purpose of this study was twofold: (1) to determine the long-term therapeutic and preventive effects of expressive writing in formerly depressed college students over the course of 6 months and (2) to assess the therapeutic effectiveness of booster writing sessions 5 weeks after the initial writing intervention. Effects were assessed at a 5-week and 6-month followup. Ninety-seven undergraduate students who met the criteria of a past episode of mild to moderate depression were randomly assigned to either an experimental or control writing condition. The experimental group was instructed to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings on emotional upheavals, while the control group was instructed to write objectively about how they manage their time. Each group wrote for 20 minutes on three consecutive days. Half of the participants in each group were randomly assigned to receive a booster session at the 5-week follow-up visit. Dependent variables included: (1) symptoms of depression (2) illness-related visits to a physician, (3) GPA, (4) selfreported physical symptoms and (5) measures of emotion-regulation. Participants who were in the expressive writing condition and received a booster session showed significantly greater declines in symptoms of depression than those in the expressive writing condition who had not received a booster session. Also, the expressive writing group displayed a tendency toward better physical health, as indicated by fewer illnessrelated physician visits, than the control group at the 5-week, but not the 6-month followup. In addition, participants who scored high on suppressive emotion-regulation strategies at the beginning of the study showed greater improvement in both depressive symptoms and rumination than participants who scored low on suppressive emotionregulation strategies. Finally, participants in the expressive writing group reported that they both thought and talked more about their writing themes and were more willing to participate in the study again than control group participants. Overall, results suggest that Pennebaker’s (1989) expressive writing intervention appears to have therapeutic and preventive effects in depression-vulnerable individuals.