photo of antidepressant pills
Pills are not the only - or even the best - way to prevent a relapse of major depression

Mindfulness training as effective as pills for preventing depression

21 April, 2015

Natural Health News — For people suffering from recurrent depression the threat of a relapse is always there. Now new research is showing that mindfulness-based therapy could offer an effective alternative to antidepressants for preventing depression relapse.

The results come from the first ever large study to compare mindfulness-based cognitive training (MBCT) – structured training for the mind and body which aims to change the way people think and feel about their experiences – with maintenance antidepressant medication for reducing the risk of relapse in depression.

The trial, conducted by British researchers and published in the journal the Lancet, involved 424 adults with recurrent major depression all of whom were taking maintenance antidepressant medication. The participants were randomly assigned to slowly come off their antidepressant medication and receive MBCT instead or to stay on their medication.

Those in the MBCT group attended eight 2¼ hour group sessions and were given daily home practice. They also had the option of attending 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.

As effective as drugs

Over 2 years, relapse rates in both groups were similar (44% in the MBCT group vs 47% in the maintenance antidepressant medication group). Although the findings show that MBCT wasn’t more effective than drug treatment in preventing relapse of depression, the results, combined with those of previous trials, suggest that MCBT may offer similar protection against depressive relapse or recurrence for people who have experienced multiple episodes of depression, with no significant difference in cost.

“Depression is a recurrent disorder. Without ongoing treatment, as many as four out of five people with depression relapse at some point,” explains Willem Kuyken, lead author and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford in the UK.

“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,” adds study co-author Professor Richard Byng, from the Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, UK. “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.”

Putting the patient in charge

For these individuals, or for those wishing to avoid the uncomfortable side effects of maintenance medication, MBCT could be of real benefit. For the health services it is a low cost and effective way to help those suffering from recurrent depression.

MBCT was developed to help people who have experienced repeated bouts of depression by teaching them the skills to recognise and to respond constructively to the thoughts and feelings associated with relapse, thereby preventing a downward spiral into depression. Patient experience suggests that mindfulness provides a set of skills which individuals can use to keep well over the long term. Rather than relying on the continuing use of antidepressants mindfulness puts the individual in charge, allowing them to take control of my own future, to spot when they are at risk and to make the necessary change to stay well.