What's the best way to overcome depression? Antidepressant drugs, or Buddhist meditation?
A new trial has examined this question: Segal et al. The short answer is that 8 weeks of mindfulness mediation training was just as good as prolonged antidepressant treatment over 18 months. But like all clinical trials, there are some catches.
Right mindfulness, samm?-sati, is the 7th step on the Buddha's Nobel Eightfold Path of enlightenment. In its modern therapeutic form, however, it's a secular practice: you don't have to be a Buddhist to meditate here (but it presumably helps).
Mindfulness meditation is also branded nowadays as mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (MCBT), although how much it has in common with regular CBT is debatable. The technique is derived from the Buddhist tradition.
The essence of mindfulness is deceptively simple: you try to become a detached observer of your own feelings and thoughts. Rather than just getting angry, you notice the feelings of anger, without letting them take over. As I've written before, while this might sound easy, we're not always aware of our own feelings.
MCBT has attracted a lot of attention as a possible way of helping people with depression achieve relapse prevention. The idea is that if you can train people to become aware of depressive thoughts and feelings if they start to reappear, they'll be able to avoid being sucked into the cycle of depression.
The 160 patients in this trial were initially treated with antidepressants, starting with an SSRI, and if that didn't work, moving onto venlafaxine (up to 375 mg, as necessary, which is a serious dose) or mirtazapine for people who couldn't take the side effects. This is a sensible treatment regime, not one relying on low doses and doubtful drugs, as in many other antidepressant trials.
About half of the patients both stayed in the trial and achieved remission. After 5 months of sustained treatment, these 84 patients were randomized into 3 groups: continuation of their antidepressant, placebo pills, or mindfulness. The people who ended up on placebo had their antidepressants gradually replaced by sugar pills over a number of weeks, to avoid withdrawal effects.
Here's what happened:
People on placebo did very badly, with only 20% remaining well 18 months later. People who either stayed on the drugs, or who got the mindfulness training, did a lot better, with 70% staying well, and there were no differences between the two.
However here's the catch. This was only true of a sub-set of the patients, the ones who had an "unstable remission", meaning that when they were originally treated with drugs, their symptoms went up and down a bit. The "stable remission" people showed no benefits of either treatment, with the ones on placebo doing slightly better, if anything.
Overall, though, this is a decent study, and shows that, for some people, mindfulness can be helpful. A skeptic could complain that mindfulness was no better than medication, but it might have two advantages: cost, and side effects, though this would depend on the medication you were talking about (some are a lot more expensive, and more prone to side-effects, than others.) The mindfulness meditation also wasn't double-blind, so the benefits may have been placebo effects, but that could be said of almost any trial of psychotherapy.
I also wonder whether you'd do even better if you became all mindful and stayed on medication: this study had no combined-treatment group, unfortunately, but this is something to look into...
Segal ZV, Bieling P, Young T, Macqueen G, Cooke R, Martin L, Bloch R, & Levitan RD (2010). Antidepressant Monotherapy vs Sequential Pharmacotherapy and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, or Placebo, for Relapse Prophylaxis in Recurrent Depression. Archives of general psychiatry, 67 (12), 1256-64 PMID: 21135325