Relapse is a common and devastating aspect of major depression, a mental illness that affects roughly 15 million Americans. The usual preventative treatment is long-term or maintenance use of antidepressants.
Now a large new study published in The Lancet suggests that mindfulness therapy can be just as effective in preventing relapse.
The relapse rates are high: More than half of those who suffer from one episode of major depression will relapse at least once in their lifetimes, and roughly 80 percent of those who have had two episodes will experience another recurrence.
Yet as Dr. Richard Byng, a psychologist at the U.K.'s Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry and one of the study's authors, noted, "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 study, conducted from the U.K.'s University of Exeter, compared the results of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) with those of maintenance antidepressant use among 424 adults with recurring major depression.
Researchers asked half of the participants to stay on their medications, while the other half tapered off medication and underwent a course of MBCT. Those in the MBCT group attended two-hour-plus weekly group sessions for eight weeks, consisting of guided mindfulness practices, group discussion and other cognitive behavioral exercises. They were also given daily home practice and, after the group sessions ended, had the opportunity to attend four follow-up sessions over the course of the next year.
Regular assessments for major depressive episodes over the following two years found similar relapse rates among the MBCT group (44 percent) and the antidepressant group (47 percent).
How does MBCT work? Using meditation, individuals learn to separate themselves from the sway of their immediate moods. They learn to recognize negative thought patterns and to respond productively, rather than spiraling downward into obsessive thoughts and relapsing into depression.
Dr. Zindel Segal, a University of Toronto psychologist and the co-developer of MBCT, explained that short-circuiting negative thoughts allows people to find joy in the present moment.
"MBCT, at its core, is teaching people to practice mindfulness," Segal, who was not involved in the study, told The Huffington Post. "And what mindfulness teaches people is how to work more wisely with their emotions. It's a meditation that is really well suited to helping people encounter difficult states of mind and turning around how they work with them, so that they can choose more adaptive responses rather than habitual responses."
Segal expressed enthusiasm about the new findings, which he said offer further clinical evidence that mindfulness-based therapies can rival traditional psychotherapy and pharmaceutical intervention in treating major depression.
"This study gives us a lot more confidence in telling people that if, for some reason, they can't stay on their antidepressants for the next three or five more years," said Segal, "there is now a credible and scientifically supported alternative to help them stay well."