Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness can reduce the risk of depression relapse francescoch/iStock

Mindfulness can reduce the risk of relapse in depression patients by 31% and is just as effective as antidepressants, a study has found. Researchers say mindfulness treatments offer people with recurring depression a new approach to learning skills to stay well in the long-term.

Depression is a signifncant health problem which affects around 2.6 people in every 100, according to Mind. As many as four out of five people with depression relapse without ongoing treatment. MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) is a group-based mindfulness meditation that has previously been linked with reducing the risk of depression relapses.

Researchers from the University of Oxford carried out the largest study to date of mindfulness and its effect on depression. They combined results from nine separate studies; totalling 1,258 individuals. The researchers compared relapse results from patients who were given mindfulness treatment with those that did not.

The results, published in JAMA Psychiatry, showed that 38% of depression patients relapsed 60 weeks after mindfulness treatment. Forty-nine percent of patients who did not receive the treatment relapsed. Overall, the researchers say people are 31% less likely to relapse after undergoing 60 weeks of mindfulness treatment.

The researchers also investigated mindfulness' efficacy compared to antidepressants. They found patients who received mindfulness treatment as well as antidepressants were 23% less likely to relapse, than patients receiving antidepressants without mindfulness.

While the results appear promising, critics have highlighted a number of potential problems. In some people, it has been found to cause panic attacks, paranoia and depression. The study also highlights a conflict of interest. One of the authors founded the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, while lead author Willem Kuyken is its current director. Several of the other authors are also affiliated with mindfulness centres.

But Richard Byng, a researcher who worked on the study urges caution: "While the evidence is from a relatively small number of trials, it is encouraging for patients and clinicians to have another option," he said.

"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."

The researchers suggest future trials should use longer follow-up periods and collect key information about patient backgrounds. This could indicate whether certain groups of patients will benefit from mindfulness treatment more than others.