Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy Australian Researchers are Lifting Spirits in Pilot Programmes to Beat Links Between Obesity and Depression

Australian Researchers are Lifting Spirits in Pilot Programmes to Beat Links Between Obesity and Depression

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A pilot therapy trial in Adelaide, South Australia is lifting the veil of depression and anxiety among obese people, boosting hopes for new programmes to tackle the global health problem.

The intense 10-week therapy programme at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) recorded significant improvements in depression, anxiety, and body shape concerns.

Project leader Dr Michael Musker is now planning to target young people aged between 18 and 25 years in a second phase trial tackling the link between co-morbid depression and obesity.

I want to tackle that and start engaging positive behaviours and tackling negative thoughts about themselves and this can help through the rest of their lives,’ Dr Musker, senior research fellow in the Mental Health and Wellbeing Team at SAHMRI, said. ‘We also have a chance of changing people’s body shapes and exercise routines if we tackle them earlier.’

Researchers, including co-facilitator and psychologist Taryn Lores, conducted interviews at the beginning of the program, at its end, then three months and one year later.

Findings released last week showed significant improvements in well-being scores – along with healthier eating and more exercise in the 24 participants with a mean age of 46 years.

Interestingly, the study recorded no weight loss and Dr Musker said this reinforced the importance of cognitive behavioural therapy to improve quality of life. He said participants were warned against diets. ‘Diets are one of the worst things for your psychological well-being,’ he said, adding that most people failed to follow diets leading to even lower self-esteem.

Instead, the programme focused on stressing people’s self worth, it encouraged healthy eating, more exercise, mindfulness and techniques to turn negative thoughts to positive thoughts. ‘The likelihood of them losing weight was low but we don’t know if it’s going to be a long-term impact,’ Dr Musker said.

At the end of the trial, many participants with depression recorded scores moving from the moderate/severe to normal (nonclinical) ranges on the Hamilton Depression Scale.

Anxiety scores also decreased significantly, with many moving from the mild/moderate to normal ranges.

One million Australian adults experience depression each year and are at risk of also developing anxiety, substance abuse and other mood disorders. Weight gain is also commonly experienced and research has shown clear links between depression and being overweight or obese.

The published paper reported that: ‘other studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of psychological therapies for the treatment of depression and obesity (weight loss) independently, but few studies have endeavoured to treat them concurrently. To fill this gap, we developed a novel group therapy program for simultaneously treating co-morbid depression and obesity within a single unified psychological intervention.’

Dr Musker said 65% of Australians are overweight and it was important to address overall well-being. ‘What we wanted to do on this course was to really tackle the psychological effects, to improve negative feelings, self loathing, self esteem, habits in sleeping and over eating,’ he said.

‘It was confronting, it was emotional, people got to share their experiences and to realise they are not the only people to share the way they feel. To see the effects are longer lasting, we would meet all of these people a year later and they still feel good about themselves, it was thrilling for me to get such positive results as a researcher.’


This article was originally published in The Lead

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