New Study Demonstrates the Benefits of Tai Chi in Chinese Americans Suffering From Depression

Summary: Tai chi has been found to be an effective and culturally acceptable treatment method for reducing symptoms of depression in Chinese Americans.

Tai chi.jpgMental illnesses such as depression are often associated with negative attitudes and beliefs. Previous research has found that these feelings of shame and discrimination are especially severe in the Chinese American community. Given the higher level of stigma, there’s a need to find culturally accepted treatment options for this traditionally under-treated population.

New research from Mass General has found that practicing the Chinese martial art tai chi significantly reduced symptoms of mild to moderate depression in Chinese Americans. “Finding that tai chi can be effective is particularly significant because it is culturally accepted by this group of patients who tend to avoid conventional psychiatric treatment,” explains Albert Yeung, MD, ScD, of the Depression Clinical and Research Program in the MGH Department of Psychiatry, lead and corresponding author of the pilot study recently published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Tai chi is an ancient Chinese tradition that, today, is practiced as a graceful form of exercise. It involves a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing. Previous studies have suggested that tai chi may help treat anxiety and depression, but most of these studies used it as a supplement for treatment of other medical conditions.

Yeung and his team enrolled 50 Chinese-American adults with a diagnosis of mild to moderate major depressive disorder and randomized them into three groups. Members of the intervention group attended twice weekly tai chi sessions in which participants were taught and practiced basic traditional tai chi movements and were asked to practice at home three times a week. An active control group participated in educational sessions that included discussions on mental health and a passive control group participated only in repeated psychological assessments with no interventions in between.

The 12-week assessments showed that the tai chi group had significantly greater improvement in depression symptoms than did members of either control group. A follow-up assessment three months later showed sustained improvement among the tai chi group, with statistically significant differences remaining compared with the waitlist group.

“If these findings are confirmed in larger studies at other sites, that would indicate that tai chi could be a primary depression treatment for Chinese and Chinese American patients, who rarely take advantage of mental health services, and may also help address the shortage of mental health practitioners,” says Yeung.

Yeung also wants to investigate whether tai chi can have similar results for individuals from other racial and ethnic groups.

Re-Thinking Mental Health Treatment: World Health Day 2017

Did you know that more than 300 million people worldwide live with depression? That number has increased 18% between 2005 and 2015, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). With such staggering numbers, it’s no surprise that WHO has chosen depression as its theme for this year’s World Health Day, which is celebrated today, April 7th. “These new figures are a wake-up call for all countries to re-think their approaches to mental health and to treat it with the urgency that it deserves,” says WHO Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are working hard to find new treatment options for those who suffer from mental illness. We thought we’d share just a few examples of recent depression-related research being conducted at Mass General:

A team of researchers is looking into a more nuanced approach to deep brain stimulation treatment that could help patients with traumatic brain injuries, treatment-resistant depression and post traumatic stress. (Here’s another great article on their research from Pacific Standard magazine).

Researchers are looking into new ways to treat suicide risk. Their findings suggest that drugs such as ketamine (typically used as an anesthetic) may alleviate suicidal thoughts.

This NIH-funded study is using smartphones to measure a person’s mental state by analyzing his or her voice, call patterns, location and text messages.

Lastly, the Depression and Clinical Research Program at Mass General is currently conducting a number of studies and seeking participants. Their focus is on testing novel antidepressant treatments and on developing new tools to understand the biological changes that occur in this condition.

Intravenous Ketamine May Rapidly Reduce Suicidal Thinking in Depressed Patients

A Massachusetts General Hospital research team recently found that intravenous treatment with low doses of the anesthetic drug ketamine quickly reduced suicidal thoughts in a small group of patients with treatment-resistant depression.

The study found that the ketamine injections, when combined with the patient’s current antidepressant medication, quickly decreased suicidal thinking in patients who had experienced suicidal thoughts for three months or longer.

Ketamine treatment could provide a viable alternative to medications such as lithium and clozapine, which are currently used to treat suicidal thoughts. Both of these drugs can have serious side effects, requiring the careful monitoring of blood levels.

More research will now be needed to test the ketamine treatment versus a placebo and to confirm the results in a larger study group.