Spiritually-Integrated Psychotherapy as Effective as Meds for Longterm Relief from Depression, Says Lancet

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Researchers in the U.K. have found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) may offer just as much protection from depression relapse as antidepressants, with no significant difference in cost, according to a new study published in the journal The Lancet

“Depression is a recurrent disorder. Without ongoing treatment, as many as four out of five people with depression relapse at some point,” said Dr. Willem Kuyken, lead author and professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford.

What is MBCT?

MBCT teaches people with recurrent depression to recognize and respond constructively to the thoughts and feelings associated with depression relapse, thereby preventing a downward spiral into depression.  It is often considered a more spiritual approach than traditional cognitive therapy because it employs meditation-based practices to teach clients how to step outside of their emotional experiences, observe their circumstances in non-judgmental fashion and, as a result, respond more proactively (rather than reactively) to stressful circumstances.

According to Dr. Richard Byng, from the Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, while medication is the most common method of keeping depression at bay, “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.”

How Effective Is It?

The study involved 424 adults with recurrent major depression who were taking maintenance antidepressant medication. Participants were randomly assigned to come off their antidepressant medication slowly and receive MBCT (212 participants) or to stay on their medication (212 participants).

MBCT participants attended eight 2-¼ hour group sessions and were given daily home practice. They took part in guided mindfulness practices, group discussion and other cognitive behavioral exercises.  After the group, they had the option of attending four follow-up sessions over a 12-month period. Participants in the maintenance antidepressant group kept taking their medication for two years.

Over two years, relapse rates in both groups were similar (44 percent in the MBCT group vs. 47 percent in the maintenance antidepressant medication group).

“As a group intervention, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was relatively low cost compared to therapies provided on an individual basis and, in terms of the cost of all health and social care services used by participants during the study, we found no significant difference between the two treatments,” said study co-author Dr. Sarah Byford, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, U.K.

Christian Concerns Over MBCT

Many Christians approach MBCT with caution or even suspicion because many clinicians use eastern-based approaches to meditation to teach MBCT skills, but MBCT does not necessitate indoctrination in non-Christian spiritualities.  MBCT experts correctly note that every major spiritual tradition has its own meditative practices which can be respectfully and effectively employed to teach MBCT skills. For instance, in my own tele-counseling practice, where I work with a primarily Catholic population,   I employ approaches to meditation developed and taught by St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Because St Ignatius’ work is greatly respected by Christian spiritual directors and is completely orthodox, by using his teachings, I am able to offer my clients the opportunity to benefit from MBCT in a manner that is completely respectful of their own spiritual heritage.  I discuss some of these approaches to treating depression and anxiety in my book, God Help Me,  This Stress is Driving Me Crazy!  as well as in my upcoming book, Broken Gods: Hope Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.

The Takeaway

Medication is often a helpful component to depression-recovery but, at best, it treats one dimension of depression–the physical.  Depression, as a syndrome, doesn’t just attack the body.  It attacks the mind, our spirits, and our relationships as well.  Spiritually-integrated approaches to psychotherapy like MBCT enable clients to achieve healing on every level and experience the emotional freedom they deserve.  If you or someone you love is struggling with emotional difficulties, be sure to take advantage of all treatments that can help you build the life you were created to live–physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.

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