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J Affect Disord. 2001 Oct;66(2-3):139-46.

Untreated short-term course of major depression: a meta-analysis of outcomes from studies using wait-list control groups.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Brown University School of Medicine, Rhode Island Hospital, 235 Plain St., Suite 501, Providence, RI 02905, USA.



While the short-term response rates to antidepressant medication and placebo are well established, very little is known about the short-term course of untreated depression. Knowledge of the course of untreated depression can serve as a benchmark for assessing the true benefits of active treatment.


A meta-analysis was performed analyzing the outcomes of all psychotherapy studies that randomized adult outpatients with major depressive disorder to a wait-list control group.


Nineteen studies involving 221 subjects were reviewed. The mean decrease in Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression scores over 2-20 weeks was 11.9%, while the mean decrease in Beck Depression Inventory scores was 15.7%. Using a subsample of studies that reported individual outcomes, we estimated that 15 of 76 subjects (19.7%) improved to a degree comparable to what would be considered a positive response in antidepressant trials.


In the short-term, depressive symptomatology can be expected to decrease by about 10-15% on average without treatment. As many as 20% of subjects who participate in a short-term antidepressant trial may experience a spontaneous remission.

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