I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we think about scientific studies, and how they are covered by the media in this age of Twitter and Facebook. I’ve also been thinking too about much of what is covered in this article, because it spends a bit of time describing what help is available, and how for some people, it doesn’t work.It’s not because what we are doing is horrible, but it’s because what is being done is based on what works for “most” people, but we aren’t most people. Let me see if I can describe how this gets messed up in our own way of thinking, and then we can see how it falls a bit short as policy too.
I’m going to do a study. I’m going to take 100 people who have been diagnosed with depression and I’m going to give 50 of them a red ball to play with. I’m then going to measure their depression symptoms after they have played with the red ball, and compare them to the 50 people who didn’t play with a red ball.
Of the 50 with the red ball:
- 25 showed no change
- 10 got worse
- 15 showed improvement
For the other 50 without the red ball:
- 30 showed no change
- 10 got worse
- 10 showed some improvement
Now what happens is that the study is now reported to show that playing with a red ball seems to help with depression. We get very excited by this, and we go out and we buy a red ball, and we play with it every day for weeks. And nothing changes. Because playing with a red ball only actually seemed to help 5 out of 100 people in the study. We can, and should, also break down the results of this study this way:
Out of 100 people in the study:
- 55 showed no change
- 20 got worse
- 25 showed improvement, but 10 of those did nothing and 15 played with a red ball.
Being generous, 15 out of 100 people showed some improvement after playing with a red ball. (5 is the true statistical difference between playing with the ball and doing nothing, so I’m being generous in this statement, but we’ll go with it.)
That means that for 85% of us, playing with a red ball will not help us.
This is why, when I see articles promoting therapy pets, or exercise, or more time in nature, or this vitamin or that probiotic, I’m consistently amused at the headline writers who promise that THIS IS THE THING THAT WILL CURE YOUR DEPRESSION.
It may, but it probably won’t. It may help a little, it may alleviate some symptoms. It also might not.
I am one person. What works for a slightly higher percentage of people might not work for me. After all, I’m allergic to dogs. A therapy dog would be awful for me. More exercise? Probably won’t help the professional athletes who still struggle with depression. More time outdoors? Not so much if you have problems with melanoma. On the other hand, one or more of these things might do wonders for you. I don’t know, the studies and the headline writers don’t either.
In the article, it talks about how the common treatment for depression is therapy, specifically CBT, and/or medication. That’s because those things work for the most people. I was one of the lucky ones, those things eventually helped me too. They might not help you. They may only help you to a point. You might also benefit from a therapy dog, or eating healthier.
In the end, you are you. What works for 51% of the population doesn’t work for the other 49%, even if we use those numbers to say it works “most of the time”. Being part of the other 49% isn’t that unbelievable.
That’s why we need to be open to more alternatives, and be a lot less pushy about what “works”, because nothing works in every single case. Promising that it will only ends up hurting people we’re trying to help.