Tai Chi Relieves Depression in Chinese Americans

Tai chi, a form of slow-moving meditation which originated in China, shows strong potential as a primary treatment for mild to moderate depression in Chinese Americans — a group which has traditionally avoided conventional psychiatric treatment, according to a new pilot study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

The findings show that Chinese-Americans with mild to moderate depression who enrolled in a 12-week tai chi class experienced a significant reduction in depressive symptoms compared to control groups. The participants were not receiving any other form of treatment.

“While some previous studies have suggested that tai chi may be useful in treating anxiety and depression, most have used it as a supplement to treatment for others medical conditions, rather than patients with depression,” said Albert Yeung, M.D., ScD, of the Depression Clinical and Research Program in the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Department of Psychiatry, lead and corresponding author of the report.

“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.”

Participants were recruited through advertisements offering tai chi for stress reduction, and their eligibility for the study was based on in-person interviews and assessments of overall health and depression symptoms.

Eligible participants were Chinese-American adults fluent in either Cantonese or Mandarin, with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder in the mild to moderate range, no history of other psychiatric disorders, no recent practice of tai chi or other mind-body interventions, and no current use of other psychiatric treatments.

A total of 50 participants were randomly placed into one of three groups: 17 in the tai chi intervention group; 14 in an active control group that included discussions on stress, mental health, and depression; and 19 in a passive control, “waitlist” group that returned for repeat assessments during and after the study period.

The 12-week tai chi intervention group met twice a week. Participants were taught basic traditional tai chi movements and were instructed to practice these at home three times a week and to document their practice. The education group also met twice weekly for 12 weeks, and sessions for both groups were offered in Cantonese or Mandarin.

Members of both the education and waitlist groups were able to join free tai chi classes after the initial study period, something they were informed of at the study’s outset.

The 12-week assessments showed that the tai chi group had significantly greater improvement in depression symptoms than did members of either control group. Follow-up assessment at 24 weeks 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, who is an associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“We also should investigate whether tai chi can have similar results for individuals from other racial and ethnic groups and determine which of the many components of tai chi might be responsible for these beneficial effects.”

Source: Massachusetts General Hospital