Why further research is necessary
Depression comes in many forms. Sometimes it seems to run in families, sometimes not. Sometimes it is chronic, with very few gaps between long periods of harrowing darkness. For others, there are distinct episodes that have a definite start and finish, with periods of feeling well in-between. We need to discover more about these different types of depression, and how mindfulness can help each person, whatever their need.
Only in the last ten years has it become clear how the tragedy of depression starts so early in life. The most common age to experience a first episode is between 13 and 16 years of age. Mindfulness is ideally suited as a preventative approach: anyone can do it, it does not stigmatize those who practice it, children and young people enjoy the meditations, and we know that it improves their well-being. Now we need larger ‘early intervention’ studies to show clearly that the first episode of depression can be prevented.
Sometimes depression is part of bipolar disorder (sometimes called ‘manic depression’). Our research has shown that MBCT can help reduce anxiety and depression in those who suffer from bipolar disorder, and many sufferers have told us how mindfulness practice has helped to stabilize their mood, but we now need to research this systematically. We need a study that uses the latest technology to ask whether and how MBCT reduces the risk of future breakdown. Only then will we and others be able to officially endorse its use for health systems worldwide.
Finally, brain imaging techniques are unveiling the secrets of how different networks in the brain interact with each other when we are sad or happy, when the mind is on autopilot or when it is clear and focussed, and when we are avoiding something or when we are open to it. Knowing that mindfulness is effective for depression is hugely important: using brain imaging techniques together with experimental cognitive science, we can learn how mindfulness has this effect, how it affects different types of depression, and which practices within mindfulness are best for whom. This is a twenty year programme that will change our understanding of depression and its treatment for ever.