Can we become a mindful nation?
From Headspace to the Houses of Parliament, mindfulness has taken off in a big way. Here’s why a group of government ministers are convinced it could be just the thing to sort out the woeful state of Britain’s mental health.
The room is almost still, filled with a comfortable, considered silence, except for the slip-slap of distant footfall and the gentle cascade of a woman’s voice. ‘Attention’, ‘notice’ and ‘breathe’ come up a lot. Not a scene you’d usually associate with mid-afternoon in the House of Commons.
But new thinking, and new action, is this meeting’s raison d’être. The voice belongs to Rebecca Crane, director of the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University and member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness. Since last May, members of all three main parties have been investigating the potential benefit of the practice as a viable solution to improve the pretty grim state of the nation’s mental wellbeing.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness exercises or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) are all about being ‘present’, and showing your thoughts who’s boss. Practitioners use techniques like meditation, breathing and yoga to help us live in the moment, not in our heads to help people change the way they think and feel about their experiences – especially stressful ones.
Its roots lay in Eastern spirituality, but it’s now a pretty big deal in the Western world too, helped partly by the buzz surrounding popular meditation apps like Headspace (check out its founder Andy Puddicombe’s infamous juggling TED talk here).
Why do we need it?
To say that we’re on the edge of a ‘mental health crisis’ is no overstatement. One in four of us face a mental health problem every year; suicide is the second cause of death in people aged 15-29 and a one fifth of us feel anxious all or a lot of the time, according to a recent YouGov poll.
‘Every society needs some practice that people are skilled at for feeling calm and feeling comfortable with themselves, and feeling passion and engagement with others; and every society needs a structure for this,’ explains APPG member Lord Richard Layard, program director at the London School of Economics. ‘It’s not just about the attitudes – lots of people have good attitudes – but we live in a secular society and many of them lack a practice. I think that’s why there is this spreading of mindfulness, like a wildfire, in our society,’ he continues.Read more: How to get some headspace
Does it really work?
In short: yes. After one month on the Mental Health Foundation’s Be Mindful course, researchers from Oxford University found people had a 58 per cent reduction in anxiety levels and a 57 per cent reduction in depression. Even their stress levels fell by nearly half.
‘I never thought I’d be here talking about meditation – I was thrown out of yoga for laughing,’ jokes Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, Tracey Crouch. She continues: ‘But when suffering with depression, mindfulness helped get me off medication, reassess my priorities and help me to deal better with anything that might knock me.’
‘The main thing I learned is that thoughts are just thoughts, and not a reality,’ agrees Liberal Democrat MP for Solihul, Lorely Burt. ‘I’ve achieved freedom from that continuous self-doubt and find myself having inexplicable moments of happiness. It really has been transformational.’Read more: Healthy’s guide to mental health
So, what’s the plan?
After ‘paying attention on purpose, in the present moment with curiosity and compassion’ with a guided meditation, it’s time to talk action. The group recommends Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for people suffering with depression, to empower them to take responsibility for their own mental health. But, the message was clear: prevention is always better than cure.
‘It’s about a positive approach to mental health, not just about treating depression,’ explained APPG member and former head of the Civil Service, Lord O’Donnell. To this end, the suggestions were broad-reaching: training up teachers to use mindfulness in schools; piloting schemes across the NHS, civil service, even prisons – where, the Mental Health Foundation reports, only one in 10 inmates have no mental disorder.
Getting the word out beyond the professional classes and health-conscious is also high up on the to-do list of the Mindfulness APPG. There are steep mental health inequalities within the UK, with incidents of poor mental health between two and two and a half percent higher among those with greatest social disadvantage than among those with the least, according to the MHF. Getting all practitioners on the same page and adhering to the same ‘good practice’ guidelines, is another – with a list of registered, approved therapists to be assembled within the year.
Where do we go from here?
The rest of the group’s findings will be released as part of the full report in June. We eagerly await.
The Mindfulness Initiative was founded by Madeleine Bunting and Chris Cullen in November 2013. Partners include the four mindfulness training and research centres in Oxford, Exeter, Bangor and Sussex, as well as the Mental Health Foundation, and an advisory group comprising some of the most experienced mindfulness scientists and practitioners in the UK. Patrons include Jon Kabat Zinn and Ruby Wax, and the co-directors are Madeleine Bunting and Ed Halliwell.