Normally I wouldn’t use the words “depression” and “good news” in the same sentence—but I do have good news about this common and debilitating condition. There’s convincing new evidence showing that acupuncture—typically thought of as a therapy for managing pain—is comparable to or possibly even a bit better than counseling when it comes to easing depression.

That’s encouraging, because depression can be tough to treat. Antidepressant medication often has intolerable side effects and fails to work for more than half of patients…and though counseling often helps, some people balk at the idea of pouring their hearts out to strangers. Clearly, there is an overwhelming need for other therapies that can help release people from the dark prison of depression. Here’s what you should know about this promising new study…


Researchers from England recruited 755 adults who had visited their primary care doctors for treatment of depression. At the start of the study, all had moderate-to-severe depression, according to standard measures…and 69% were taking antidepressant medication.

Participants were randomly divided into three groups. The first received “usual care” alone, meaning that they were treated by their primary care doctors as if they weren’t in the study. The second group was assigned to receive usual care plus 12 weekly counseling sessions from trained and professionally qualified counselors who practiced a commonly used form of psychotherapy. The third group was assigned to receive usual care plus 12 weekly acupuncture sessions, with the acupuncturists following a fairly standard protocol.

At the start of the study, all participants completed questionnaires that assessed their levels of depression on a scale of zero to 27, with higher scores indicating worse depression. The average score at the outset was 16. After three months of treatment, the depression test was repeated.

Results: All groups showed improvement—but not to the same degree. Specifically…

  • The average depression score improved by 3.5 points in the usual-care group…by 5.7 points in the counseling group…and by 5.9 points in the acupuncture group.

  • Scores improved enough to no longer meet the criteria for depression in 18% of the usual-care group…29% of the counseling group…and 33% of the acupuncture group.

  • The mean number of depression-free days over the three-month period was 23 days in the usual-care group…27 days in the counseling group…and 34 days in the acupuncture group.

    Caveat: The type of counseling provided in this study was primarily a “nondirective” or “humanistic” approach. With this type of therapy, empathetic counselors help clients express their feelings, clarify their thoughts and reframe their difficulties to bring about a change in outlook—but counselors do not give advice or set homework. In treating depression, nondirective therapy has been shown to be as effective on average as cognitive behavioral therapy (which teaches techniques for changing irrational thoughts). However, it is possible that a different type of psychotherapy and/or longer course of treatment might have been more effective.

    Editor’s note: In the US, acupuncture costs about $60 to $120 per session, depending on the location and practitioner. Health insurance sometimes covers acupuncture, so check your policy to see whether depression treatment would be included. To find an acupuncturist, check with the American Association of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine or the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine.