• clinical outcome;
  • depression;
  • functional outcome;
  • social functioning

Objectives:  Numerous long-term studies of depression in psychiatric settings have shown a poor clinical outcome but little emphasis has been placed on psychosocial or functional outcome in studies to date. This article reviews published data on long-term social functioning after depression and considers why psychosocial recovery appears delayed compared with clinical recovery.

Methods:  Searches were carried out of the databases MEDLINE, PSYCHLIT and EMBASE for articles published from 1980 using keywords relating to social and functional outcomes of unipolar and bipolar depression. Review articles and relevant textbooks were also searched.

Results:  The few outcome studies published have described long-term functional impairment in the majority of patients but have been limited by methodological shortcomings. Psychosocial impairment tends to persist even after clinical remission from depression. Residual symptomatology after remission from depression may lead to enduring psychosocial impairment, as may subtle neurocognitive deficits. Axis I and II comorbidities predict a poor psychosocial outcome, but episodes of depression do not appear to lead to personality ‘scarring’.

Conclusions:  Future outcome studies need to focus on longitudinal social functioning. Full functional recovery after an episode of depression should be the goal of treatment as enduring residual symptoms lead to long-term psychosocial impairment.