People who suffer from chronic depression may have a new method for dealing with their condition that doesn't involve popping another pill. A new study has found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy may be just as effective as antidepressants in controlling long-term issues with depression.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a group-based therapy that teaches people how to become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that they have — particularly those that trigger depression — and how to deal more constructively with those feelings before they lead to a depressive episode.

For the study, researchers recruited 424 adults around the age of 50 who had been diagnosed with chronic depression and were taking antidepressants. About half of the participants were allowed to keep taking their medication while the other half were asked to wean off the antidepressants and begin participating in MBCT sessions. These sessions involved a two-hour class weekly for eight weeks and periodic refresher classes for the next year.

At the end of the two-year study period, researchers found that participants taking antidepressants and those using MBCT had an equal number of depression-free days. They also noted that 44 percent of the MBCT group, vs. 47 percent of the antidepressant group, had a relapse. Both groups described similar feelings about their overall quality of life.

“Currently, maintenance antidepressant medication is the key treatment for preventing relapse, reducing the likelihood of relapse or recurrence by up to two-thirds when taken correctly,” said Richard Byng, co-author of the study and professor at Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry in the United Kingdom. “However, 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."

For these people — those who don't do well or don't want to deal with long-term medication — MBCT might be a viable option for controlling chronic depression. But the study's authors warn that patients should not ditch their medications cold turkey. Talk to your doctor about creating a plan for weaning off of antidepressants while you enroll in an MBCT program. With professional help and some luck, you could be drug-free and depression-free in no time.

Can mindfulness be as effective as antidepressants?
When patients with chronic depression are given the tools to combat depression, they are able to stave it off without medication, new research shows.