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Looking East: could meditation help cure the West's addiction to antidepressants?

Mental Health
Man meditating

Impaulsive Photography under a Creative Commons Licence

Over the past decade, the West has experienced a mental-health crisis on an unprecedented scale. Diagnosis rates for depression have risen steeply and charities inform us that in the course of a single year one in four people will suffer from a mental-health problem. The standard line is that the pressures of modern life are to blame for this epidemic. We are told that rising unemployment, debt and relationship breakups – exacerbated by the economic crisis – have caused increasing numbers of people to fall ill.

Yet according to the author of a report published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in December, this narrative tells only part of the story. Chris Dowrick, Professor of Primary Medical Care at the University of Liverpool, argues that the global surge in the diagnosis of depression is a consequence of what he calls ‘the medicalization of unhappiness’.

In the US, 11 per cent of people over the age of 11 take antidepressants. In Britain five million people are now labelled depressed or suffering from anxiety

His report contains some disturbing statistics. In the US, 11 per cent of people over the age of 11 take antidepressants. In Britain the figure is lower but it is estimated that five million people are now labelled depressed or suffering from anxiety – twice as many as in 2002 – and the prescription rate of antidepressants doubled between 1998 and 2010.

One possible explanation for this trend is that, under pressure from the pharmaceutical industry, successive editions of the Diagnostics Manual (DSM IV and DSM V) have been updated to include forms of sadness which are actually just common reactions to ordinary life events, such as grief or financial worries. ‘What that now means is that if somebody has lost a loved one and they have common symptoms of depression which last for more than two weeks, then you can be given a diagnosis of depression,’ Dowrick explains. ‘Very often the diagnosis then leads to treatment and the most common treatment is medication.’

It is not that these forms of unhappiness should not be taken seriously; rather, Dowrick suggests, it is unhelpful to view them as illnesses and medication is unlikely to help.

Drugs no better than a placebo

Research has shown that bestselling drugs like Prozac are no better than placebo at alleviating mild symptoms of the kind grieving patients may present. ‘The evidence is pretty strong that antidepressants are not useful for mild depression. There may be some use for moderate depression but they’re only helpful for sure with much more severe depression,’ he asserts. Instead, Dowrick feels greater attention should be paid to the potential of therapies which are free of negative side-effects. Among the most promising of these, he claims, is mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness traces its origins to the teachings of the Buddha, who lived in India in the 4th century BC. The Buddha taught his followers the importance of establishing an awareness of the present moment on the path to enlightenment – an ability he acquired with the help of meditating. Over centuries, numerous variations of mindfulness meditation have developed, most of which involve training the mind to focus on a single object of attention – typically the sensation of breathing – with the aim of letting go of any desires, cravings or anxieties related to past or future events.

At first approximation it may seem strange that Western medicine, with all the benefits of modern technology, should look to a 2,500-year-old Eastern tradition for inspiration. Yet Professor Dowrick is hardly the first scientist to have expressed an interest in it. At the University of Toronto, Professor of Psychiatry Zindel Segal has been researching the potential of mindfulness meditation to help depressed patients for over a decade.

Segal first became interested in mindfulness in 2000 when he was given a grant by the Macarthur Foundation to develop a new approach to the treatment of depression. His mission was to modify Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – a talk therapy involving one-to-one sessions between a psychiatrist and patient – in order to design an intervention programme which could reduce the risk of relapse in patients with a history of recurrent depression. He used the grant to gather two colleagues, John Teasdale and Mark Williams (both of the University of Oxford), who had published research into the nature of vulnerability to depression. In the process of developing their model, the three scientists came across the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who had created a radical programme in the US for patients with chronic pain. His Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) sessions used simple breathing meditation techniques to help participants heighten their awareness of the present moment and manage their symptoms better. The patients were then given guided audio tapes which they could use to practice mindfulness meditation in their spare time.

Clinical trials had recorded promising results for MBSR and Segal and his team believed similar techniques might be helpful for patients with a history of depression. ‘We spent time with Jon Kabat-Zinn and his group, watching their teachers teach this material in MBSR. So at a personal level we felt there was something here that could be useful if we could help our depressed patients do the same thing,’ he explains. And so it was that by merging elements of CBT with techniques inspired by Kabat-Zinn’s sessions, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was born. All that was left was to see if it worked.

An important step forward

All the participants in MBCT’s first clinical trial had been diagnosed with depression and 80 per cent had experienced three or more depressive episodes. They had all been treated to a point where they were in remission and were not taking anti-depressants at the time of the trial. The results marked an important step forward. While MBCT proved ineffective for patients with two depressive episodes or fewer, those who had suffered three or more episodes recorded a 34-36 per cent reduction in relapse over a one-year period compared to usual care – similar to what other studies had found for the use of antidepressants.

Subsequent trials conducted at Cambridge University and the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (part of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry) replicated these findings.

The comedian Tim Minchin once quipped, ‘You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine’

‘It gave us a lot of confidence because we weren’t trying to outperform drug treatments. We would be happy with an equivalent benefit as some drug treatments because we knew that many people who start drug treatments will not continue them if they’re feeling better. We also knew that drug treatments carry significant side effects that people can’t tolerate,’ says Segal.

Indeed, the strength of conviction in MBCT is now so high that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends it and the therapy has been available on the NHS to a limited number of patients in Britain since 2004. The comedian Tim Minchin once quipped, ‘You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.’ Mindfulness meditation, it appears, has already made that leap.

Yet Segal doesn’t believe MBCT should replace drugs altogether; rather, he would like MBCT to run contiguously with treatments involving antidepressants during different phases of severe depression. MBCT, he stresses, is not designed to treat patients while they are experiencing depressive episodes, rather to prevent future relapse in those who have already recovered by other means. His research therefore sheds little light on whether mindfulness can, as Professor Dowrick hopes, help people with mild depressive symptoms feel better. In fact, until recently, doctors and scientists have been unsure whether practising mindfulness has any effect on symptoms of depression at all. Now, following one of the most comprehensive reviews ever published on the effects of meditation, the evidence is clearer than ever before.

Gaining clarity

Led by Dr Madhav Goyal, medical researchers at John Hopkins University in Baltimore sifted through more than 19,000 peer-reviewed papers on meditation. Segal’s trial was among just 47 that met the standards required to be included in a meta-study collating data on the effects of meditation across a wide range of outcomes. ‘The majority of trials looking at depressive symptoms were mostly in populations that had mild symptoms, so Segal’s trial was one of the ones that looked at patients with major depression,’ says Goyal. ‘The studies that didn’t adequately control for placebo effects got excluded and that’s why we see so small a number of randomized trials in our review.’

Perhaps disappointingly for those who had promoted meditation as a miracle panacea, the results showed mindfulness therapies had little or no effect across a majority of outcomes. But when the researchers looked specifically at depression they found moderate evidence of a 10-20 per cent improvement in mild symptoms over an average period of eight weeks. These results were, once again, similar to those recorded for antidepressants, and mindfulness was also the only form of meditation to record any positive effects.

However, mindfulness therapies failed to outperform CBT and exercise, which were also associated with similar improvements. So how encouraging were these results and what did scientists learn about the relationship between mindfulness and depression? ‘I think that the evidence to this date has been so mixed that physicians really weren’t sure if this was something that was helpful or just a placebo effect. This review helps to put some clarity to that. We’re seeing a fairly consistent effect that mindfulness meditation reduces symptoms of depression. That is a fairly strong finding which at least to me suggests that this is something that is helpful,’ says Dr Goyal.

Those who are involved in mindfulness research are almost unanimous in their desire for it to become a more accessible healthcare option

Professor Segal suggests that MBCT may yet boast significant advantages over other drug-free therapies. Firstly, mindfulness-based group sessions are probably more cost efficient than talk therapies like CBT, which tends to be delivered on a one-to-one basis.

Theoretically, this should make MBCT one of the most accessible options (particularly in countries without free healthcare like the US) for patients who can’t afford the cost of a personal shrink. Segal also suspects people who learn mindfulness techniques may be better equipped than CBT participants to put their skills into practice over the long term. He admits this is speculative, since very few studies have followed patients for more than a year after completing therapy.

Those who are involved in mindfulness research are almost unanimous in their desire for it to become a more accessible healthcare option. Yet while the clinical evidence on which they base their hopes is sound, further studies are required to determine which phases of depression mindfulness is most effective at treating, and whether more intensive and longer periods of practice would yield greater results. Quite how this crucial research will be funded is a matter of some concern. In September, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry identified ‘the elephant on the table’:

‘Psychotherapy is one of the most widely used classes of treatment, but unfortunately there is no commercial entity analogous to the pharmaceutical industry to support research and development of the current and next generations of interventions. The impact of this state of affairs is particularly evident with respect to the ability to conduct larger-scale studies of comparative treatment effectiveness, for which there are only a handful of relevant studies.’

This is particularly alarming in the light of concerns about pharmaceutical drugs raised by Professor Dowrick in his BMJ report. But even if – as seems likely – the necessary funding isn’t secured, Dr Goyal believes the current evidence, whilst moderate, is sufficient to justify the expansion of mindfulness-based therapies within healthcare systems around the world:

‘In medical practice we don’t wait for high strength of evidence for every single therapy that we use, because not everything has a high strength of evidence for its use. So moderate is pretty good. It’s telling us that we didn’t find any bad side effects; we’re moderately confident that this is going to be helpful and so that’s a very reasonable place to start and I don’t think anybody would fault a physician for recommending a therapy that has moderate strength of evidence for improving symptoms.’

Professor Dowrick agrees. In his capacity as a GP he regularly recommends mindfulness meditation to patients who come to him with symptoms of depression. ‘All interventions have limited benefits; there’s nothing that’s a panacea for everything. But if the benefits are as good as the first-line treatment which is an antidepressant, that is in itself an important finding. I would be very happy to see more mindfulness approaches available on the NHS [National Health Service],’ he concludes.