Mental 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.