Does Mindfulness Help Prevent Depression?

Meditation and mindfulness may be viable options to prevent subclinical depression from progressing into major depressive disorder, say the authors of a new study.
Kerry Lengyel
Published: March 17, 2018
Mindfulness is next to godliness — or at least that’s the way it may appear. Articles and reports boasting the benefits of meditation appear online daily, and the veterinary community is making a concerted effort to highlight the importance of mental wellbeing. A recent study supports the favorable claims and says mindfulness may help prevent major depressive disorder (MMD) in people with subclinical depression.

Subclinical depression is defined as a condition in which a person has depressive symptoms, such as hopelessness, apathy, guilt, sadness or suicidal thoughts that do not meet the criteria for a depressive disorder.

According to the authors of a study published in the Annals of Family Medicine journal, subclinical depression is estimated to affect about 10 to 24 percent of people at some point in their lives. Subclinical depression is a precursor to MDD, which causes significant impairment in the daily lives of more than 16.1 million U.S. adults.

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Study co-author Samuel Y.S. Wong, MD, from the Jockey Club School of Public Health and Primary Care at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, along with his colleagues, studied whether mindfulness meditation could prevent subclinical depression from transgressing to MDD.

Research Method
Adults age 18 or older diagnosed with subclinical depression were recruited from 16 outpatient clinics in Hong Kong and split into two randomly assigned groups. One group of 115 patients participated in eight, two-hour weekly group-based behavioral activation with mindfulness (BAM) sessions; another group of 116 patients participated in usual medical care, receiving no additional psychological interventions.

The different BAM sessions consisted of:
  • Sessions 1-4: wellbeing psychoeducation, setting short- and long-term goals, self-monitoring of activity and mood using activity logs, scheduling daily activities, and identifying avoidance and how it impacts decision making
  • Sessions 5-7: 30-minute behavioral activation review, 1.5-hour mindfulness practice including sitting and walking meditation, and guided meditations for home practice
  • Session 8: review of previous skills learned and reinforce these skills in daily life

Investigators assessed each patient’s quality of life, activity and circumstances change, functional impairment, and anxiety at four different times: before the intervention, at the end of intervention, 5 months after intervention and 12 months after intervention.

Results and Implications
Twelve months after intervention, the investigators found that patients who participated in the mindfulness meditation session were less likely to have developed MDD (10.8 percent of participants) than those who received usual care (26.8 percent of participants).

“Group BAM appears to be efficacious for decreasing depressive symptoms and reducing the incidence of major depression among patients with subthreshold depression in primary care, although generalizability of our findings may be limited,” the authors wrote.

Practicing eight weeks of mindfulness and meditation can be a preventive intervention for MDD among patients with subclinical depressive symptoms, say the authors. But further evaluations are needed to investigate whether those with more chronic depression would have a similar response.

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