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Vicarious Experience Affects Patients' Treatment Preferences for Depression



Depression is common in primary care but often under-treated. Personal experiences with depression can affect adherence to therapy, but the effect of vicarious experience is unstudied. We sought to evaluate the association between a patient's vicarious experiences with depression (those of friends or family) and treatment preferences for depressive symptoms.


We sampled 1054 English and/or Spanish speaking adult subjects from July through December 2008, randomly selected from the 2008 California Behavioral Risk Factor Survey System, regarding depressive symptoms and treatment preferences. We then constructed a unidimensional scale using item analysis that reflects attitudes about antidepressant pharmacotherapy. This became the dependent variable in linear regression analyses to examine the association between vicarious experiences and treatment preferences for depressive symptoms.


Our sample was 68% female, 91% white, and 13% Hispanic. Age ranged from 18-94 years. Mean PHQ-9 score was 4.3; 14.5% of respondents had a PHQ-9 score >9.0, consistent with active depressive symptoms. Analyses controlling for current depression symptoms and socio-demographic factors found that in patients both with (coefficient 1.08, p = 0.03) and without (coefficient 0.77, p = 0.03) a personal history of depression, having a vicarious experience (family and friend, respectively) with depression is associated with a more favorable attitude towards antidepressant medications.


Patients with vicarious experiences of depression express more acceptance of pharmacotherapy. Conversely, patients lacking vicarious experiences of depression have more negative attitudes towards antidepressants. When discussing treatment with patients, clinicians should inquire about vicarious experiences of depression. This information may identify patients at greater risk for non-adherence and lead to more tailored patient-specific education about treatment.

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