Mindfulness Therapy As Effective As Antidepressants, According to New Study

A new study finds patients with depression undergoing mindfulness-based cognitive therapy were 23 percent less likely to relapse than those taking antidepressants. Nacho Doce/Reuters

This story first appeared on Medical Daily.

Recent research into mindfulness — focusing on the present moment through meditation — has shown that the practice comes with myriad health benefits, from alleviating pain to treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Mindfulness's positive impact on stress and depression have also been touted in studies, and a new large meta-analysis finds that, when used in a clinical setting, may be just as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) involves patients working in groups and learning skills to manage their feelings and experiences, as well as employing mindfulness to reduce depression. It's something of a mix between cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and meditation. A new study, published April 27 in JAMA Psychiatry found that it could be used as a substitution for antidepressants or in tandem with medications to improve overall outcomes.

"While the evidence is from a relatively small number of trials, it is encouraging for patients and clinicians to have another option," said Richard Byng, professor of primary care at the University of Plymouth and an author of the study, in a statement. "There was insufficient data to examine which types of patient or context predict who would benefit most. This, along with varied individual study and wide combined study confidence intervals, means that clinicians need to be cautiously optimistic when tapering off antidepressant medication, and treat each patient as an individual who may or may not benefit from both MBCT and other effective treatments."

For the study, researchers examined nine trials and found that 38 percent of people who had MBCT experienced a depressive relapse within 60 weeks. Those who didn't go through MBCT, on the other hand, had a 49 percent relapse rate. The researchers calculated that MBCT gave patients a 31 percent lower risk of relapsing during 60 weeks. After accounting for age, sex and level of education into account, the researchers found that MBCT still remained effective, suggesting it could be helpful for a wide range of people.

But perhaps most interestingly, the researchers also examined trials that involved patients receiving MBCT while continuing, slowly weaning off, or completely stopping antidepressants. It turned out that people who received MBCT and stopped using antidepressants were 23 percent less likely to relapse than people who continued with antidepressants and didn't receive MBCT.

Some scientists remain cautious about the benefits of mindfulness, however. In another recent study, researchers found that many reports on mindfulness are biased and possibly exaggerated. Indeed, more research will need to be done before doctors can begin prescribing mindfulness instead of antidepressants, but it's an area worth exploring.

Willem Kuyken a University of Oxford professor pf psychiatry and lead author of the study, called the results "heartening," noting that "while MBCT is not a panacea, it does clearly offer those with a substantial history of depression a new approach to learning skills to stay well in the long term," Kuyken said. "It offers people a safe and empowering treatment choice alongside other mainstay approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and maintenance antidepressants. We need to do more research, however, to get recovery rates closer to 100 percent and to help prevent the first onset of depression, earlier in life."