Meditation is as good as anti-depressants for tackling depression, a major study has suggested.

Researchers at Oxford University say that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy stopped as many people from sliding back into depression as strong medication.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that encourages people to become more aware of the present moment and their own place in the world, to avoid thoughts spiralling out of control.

The study followed 492 severely depressed adults over two years, half of whom received mindfulness training and the other half who stayed on anti-depressant drugs.

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It found 47 per cent of people taking medication slipped back into major depression, compared with 44 per cent of people practising mindfulness meditation.

"While this study doesn't show that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy works any better than maintenance anti-depressant medication in reducing the rate of relapse in depression, we believe these results suggest a new choice for the millions of people with recurrent depression on repeat prescriptions," said Dr Willem Kuyken, the lead author and Professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford University.

Figures published by the Health and Social Care Information Centre last year showed that around 50 million prescriptions for anti-depressants are written in Britain each year, a seven per cent rise from 2013. In towns such as Salford and Middlesbrough, one adult in six is on medication.

Official guidance from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence urges doctors in England to treat patients suffering mild to moderate depression with psychological therapies. But medication is recommended for more severe depressive illness.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was developed to help people who have experienced repeated bouts of depression by teaching them the skills to recognise thoughts associated with relapse to prevent their conditions escalating.

Study participant Nigel Reed, 59, from Sidmouth, Devon, said the programme had given him a set of skills that had long-term benefits. "Rather than relying on the continuing use of anti-depressants mindfulness puts me in charge, allowing me to take control of my own future, to spot when I am at risk and to make the changes I need to stay well," he said.

However, some experts warned that the trial was not large enough to come to a definitive conclusion and had not included a placebo group. The research was published in The Lancet.