Meditation Versus Medication: A New Paradigm For Treating Depression

by John W. Steele, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist

Within the average year, 10% of the U.S population has experienced an episode of clinical depression. Over the course of a lifetime, 25% of women and 12% of men suffer one or more episodes of depression. Depression rarely occurs by itself. It is frequently associated with anxiety, in the form of panic disorder, phobias, generalized anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Research has demonstrated that psychotherapy (specifically, cognitive-behavioral and interpersonal types of therapy) and antidepressant medication are equally effective in eliminating or reducing depressive symptoms. Nevertheless, since doctors often prescribe medication before they refer patients for psychotherapy, most people use antidepressants as their frontline treatment for depression.

Longitudinal studies have shown that relapse and recurrences following successful treatment are common debilitating outcomes of depression. Since antidepressants work by suppressing symptoms, their effectiveness does not outlast their use. Psychotherapy is more effective than medication over the long term because people who go through therapy gain new coping skills. As a result, the effects tend to carry on after the therapy has ended. Even so, relapse is common and the risk of early recurrence increases with each episode of depression.

This is where meditation comes in. Clinical psychologists in Canada and the U.K. collaborated in developing a program to help people who have fully or partially recovered from one or more episodes of depression prevent relapse. They called it Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and placed mindfulness meditation training at the core of the program. Mindfulness meditation is a practice that involves noticing thoughts as they arise and letting them go. This helps us see clearly that our thoughts are thoughts rather than facts. As we begin to be able to see our thoughts more objectively, we are less likely to spiral down into a full-blown depression whenever negative thoughts and emotions arise. Research has demonstrated that those who complete an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program are 50% less likely to experience a relapse into depression than those who receive treatment as usual.

My personal impression of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is that it really works. There is an excellent book with a CD in the back to guide you through the MBCT program and mindfulness practices that go along with it, called “The Mindful Way Through Depression, by Mark Williams. When I facilitated an eight-week MBCT program at People House last spring, I was inspired to see how eagerly the eight participants embraced the practices and techniques offered to them. The next MBCT program at People House starts September 9.


People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth