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Estimating remission from untreated major depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis

  • H. A. Whiteford (a1) (a2), M. G. Harris (a1) (a2), G. McKeon (a1), A. Baxter (a1) (a2), C. Pennell (a1), J. J. Barendregt (a2) and J. Wang (a3)...

Few studies have examined spontaneous remission from major depression. This study investigated the proportion of prevalent cases of untreated major depression that will remit without treatment in a year, and whether remission rates vary by disorder severity.


Wait-list controlled trials and observational cohort studies published up to 2010 with data describing remission from untreated depression at ⩽2-year follow-up were identified. Remission was defined as rescinded diagnoses or below threshold scores on standardized symptom measures. Nineteen studies were included in a regression model predicting the probability of 12-month remission from untreated depression, using logit transformed remission proportion as the dependent variable. Covariates included age, gender, study type and diagnostic measure.


Wait-listed compared to primary-care samples, studies with longer follow-up duration and older adult compared to adult samples were associated with lower probability of remission. Child and adolescent samples were associated with higher probability of remission. Based on adult samples recruited from primary-care settings, the model estimated that 23% of prevalent cases of untreated depression will remit within 3 months, 32% within 6 months and 53% within 12 months.


It is undesirable to expect 100% treatment coverage for depression, given many will remit before access to services is feasible. Data were drawn from consenting wait-list and primary-care samples, which potentially over-represented mild-to-moderate cases of depression. Considering reported rates of spontaneous remission, a short untreated period seems defensible for this subpopulation, where judged appropriate by the clinician. Conclusions may not apply to individuals with more severe depression.

Corresponding author
*Address for correspondence: Professor H. A. Whiteford, The University of Queensland, School of Population Health, Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, Locked Bag 500, Sumner Park BC, QLD 4074, Australia. (Email:
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