Body & Mind

Meditation as effective as drugs for treating depression

Meditation as effective as drugs for treating depression

  • Patients using mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) had the same recurrence rates as people taking anti-depressants
  • Mindfulness meditation teaches people to focus on the present moment
  • Experts said MBCT courses could be offered as an alternative to drugs

An ancient Buddhist meditation practice could be as effective as modern drugs at beating depression, new research suggests.

A study published in The Lancetfound mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) led to similar outcomes as antidepressants when treating the mental disorder.

Mindfulness – which teaches people to focus on the present moment – is a growing movement based on ancient Eastern traditions of meditation.

Researchers found patients on a MBCT course suffered almost the same rates of recurrence as those taking anti-depressants.

Over two years, relapse rates were 44 per cent in the MBCT group compared to 47 per cent in the medication group.

This suggests it offers an ‘alternative treatment’ for those averse to the idea of taking drugs, said the researchers.

A course of MBCT treatment typically lasts for eight weeks and mainly relies on meditation but also includes cognitive behaviour therapy and yoga.

It’s designed to help the patient develop a healthier, more accepting relationship with their thoughts and feelings.

Professor Richard Byng, of the Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, said: ‘Currently, maintenance antidepressant medication is the key treatment for preventing relapse, reducing the likelihood of relapse or recurrence by up to two-thirds when taken correctly.

‘However, there are many people who – for a number of different reasons – are unable to keep on a course of medication for depression.

‘Moreover, many people do not wish to remain on medication for indefinite periods, or cannot tolerate its side effects.’

The first study of its kind discovered MBCT isn’t more effective than antidepressants but could offer similar protection – with no significant difference in cost.

Professor Willem Kuyken, of Oxford University, said: ‘Depression is a recurrent disorder. 

‘Without ongoing treatment as many as four out of five people with depression relapse at some point.’

MBCT was developed to help people who have experienced repeated bouts of depression by teaching them the skills to recognise and respond constructively to the thoughts and feelings associated with relapse – thereby preventing a downward spiral.

In the study, 424 adults with recurrent major depression were split into two group at random – half remaining on antidepressants and the others coming off and receiving MBCT.

The latter group attended eight group sessions lasting two-and-a-quarter hours and were given daily home practice.

Afterwards they had the option of attending four follow up sessions over a 12 month period.

The MBCT course consists of guided mindfulness practices, group discussion and other cognitive behavioural exercises.

Those in the maintenance antidepressant group continued their medication for two years.

All trial participants were assessed at regular intervals over two years for a major depressive episode using a psychiatric diagnostic interview tool.

Although five adverse events were reported – including two deaths – across both groups they were not judged to be attributable to the interventions or the trial.

Professor Sarah Byford, of King’s College London, said: ‘As a group intervention mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was relatively low cost compared to therapies provided on an individual basis.

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