Understanding how people with depression think about how the past could have turned out differently

The period of funding from the BU Fusion Investment Fund (Co-Creation and Co-Production Strand) has just finished for my joint psychology and psychiatry research project into the role of counterfactual thinking in depression. Counterfactual thinking is thinking about how the past could have been different. It is closely tied-up with the emotion of regret but can help people prepare to deal more effectively with similar situations in the future. For example, a person who thinks that an intimate relationship that failed would have survived if they had taken more account of how their partner was feeling (counterfactual thinking) can adapt their behaviour accordingly in their next intimate relationship in order to try to prevent the breakdown of the relationship and ensure its longevity.

My collaborator on the Fusion-funded project is Dr Paul Walters who’s a Consultant Psychiatrist for Dorset HealthCare University NHS Foundation Trust (DHUFT) based at Weymouth. A student from the Psychology Department’s Foundations in Clinical Psychology Master’s degree course (Stephen Richer) worked on the project by interviewing DHUFT patients who are diagnosed with depression. The project ran from December 2013 to July 2015, in which time a total of 29 patients were assessed. Although the project funding has ended, participant recruitment will continue until the required number of 65 participants is reached, which should be by October 2015.

Preliminary analysis of the data from the project suggests that the patients assessed tend to focus on aspects of the self (e.g., personality characteristics) when thinking counterfactually about a negative social event from their past. This finding contrasts with the counterfactual thoughts of people that have not received a formal clinical diagnosis of depression who, our previous research has found, tend to focus more on factors that are external to the self (e.g., other people’s behaviour) when mentally ‘undoing’ a previous negative social event. Once the data are collected from all 65 participants with depression, more meaningful comparisons between the counterfactual thoughts of depressed and non-depressed people will be drawn. Ultimately, Paul Walters and I hope that the findings of the project will aid in the refinement of the cognitive behavioural therapies that psychiatrists and clinical psychologists administer for the treatment of depression. Once the results of the data from all 65 participants have been analysed and written-up for publication, Paul and I plan to submit a funding bid to the National Institute of Health Research for a follow-on intervention project into tailoring cognitive behavioural therapies for depression based on the factors that influence the counterfactual thoughts of the patients with depression.

Overall, the BU Fusion funding has been immensely beneficial for engaging students and a key external stakeholder in the local community (DHUFT) in a valuable piece of applied research that has important psychotherapeutic implications for mental health patients and professional best practice implications for mental healthcare professionals.

Thank you, Fusion Investment Fund, I couldn’t have done the research without you.

Dr Kevin Thomas, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Science and Technology.