A method of mental training for the mind and body, which helps people change the way people think and feel about their experiences, may be just as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapse, researchers in the United Kingdom have found, after a two-year trial involving 424 depression sufferers.
The method, known as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), may offer a welcome alternative for people wishing to avoid long-term use of antidepressants, which can have unpleasant side effects like insomnia, constipation and sexual problems, according to a study published Monday in The Lancet medical journal.
“There are many people who, for a number of different reasons, are unable to keep on a course of medication for depression,” Dr. Richard Byng, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “Moreover, many people do not wish to remain on medication for indefinite periods or cannot tolerate its side effects.”
Depression, one of the most common forms of mental illness and ranked by the World Health Organization as the leading cause of disability globally, affects more than 350 million people worldwide and is often a recurring disorder.
People with a history of the ailment are frequently placed on a long-term course — typically about two years — of antidepressants. Previous research has shown that antidepressants can reduce the risk of relapse by up to two-thirds when taken correctly. But dosage adherence is hugely variable.
While as many as 4 out of 5 people relapse at some point without treatment, according to Dr. Willem Kuyken, the study’s lead author, the side effects of antidepressants have fueled interest in alternative methods like MBCT.
In this study, 424 adults in England with recurrent major depression, who were on maintenance antidepressant drugs, were randomly assigned to go off their antidepressants slowly and receive MBCT or to stay on their medication.
Those in the group that stopped taking antidepressants attended eight group sessions of mindfulness therapy in which therapists helped the subjects learn how to respond adaptively to thoughts, feelings and experiences that “might otherwise have triggered depressive relapse,” according to the summary in the Lancet. The subjects in that group were given daily homework assignments as well as an option to have four follow-up sessions over 12 months.
Study results published showed that after two years, relapse rates were similar in both groups — 44 percent in the therapy group versus 47 percent in the antidepressant drug group.
“Mindfulness gives me a set of skills which I use to keep well in the long term,” Nigel Reed, a participant in the study, said in a statement. “Rather than relying on the continuing use of antidepressants, mindfulness puts me in charge, allowing me to take control of my own future, to spot when I am at risk and to make the changes I need to stay well.”
The researchers said that while they found no evidence that MBCT was superior to the use of antidepressants in preventing relapse, they said “both treatments were associated with enduring positive outcomes in terms of relapse or recurrence, residual depressive symptoms and quality of life.”
“We believe these results suggest a new choice for the millions of people with recurrent depression on repeat prescriptions,” Kuyken said.
Al Jazeera and wire services