Mindfulness isn't going to cure our mental health crisis, and we need to stop pretending like it could

The practice looks set to join medication as the one size fits answer to mental health problems, but it won't work

Mollie Goodfellow@hansmollman
Thursday 14 May 2015 16:02
Mindfulness involves taking your time, considering the now, experiencing the moment
Mindfulness involves taking your time, considering the now, experiencing the moment

Mindfulness is the new buzzword when it comes to looking after your mental health. Anxious? Practice mindfulness? Feeling depressed? Why not try some mindfulness? The idea is that you spend some time somewhere quiet and peaceful and try not to think about what is stressing you out. It’s getting touted as the next big thing in mental health care but frankly, I wish it wasn’t.

I was incredibly lucky when, at 17, I had access to private psychiatric care under health insurance that my dad received as part of his job. I first started suffering with depression and anxiety in my teens and due to this lifeline, was quickly referred to a psychiatrist and had access to the therapy I desperately needed.

Part of what was taught to me during my sessions was the concept of mindfulness. I’d sit with my therapist and practice. But when it comes to helping with my depression, it just didn’t cut it. As a sufferer of panic attacks, I can see the benefits. When I was in Paris two years ago, I hyperventilated under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and was unable to sit in a restaurant because I was convinced that I was going to throw up or die. Sitting and thinking about as little as possible got me through it all.

So it's not that it can't work. But my problem with the wonder cure mindfulness is the fear that it’ll be packaged up as the be-all and end-all for treating depression, and give mental health authorities an excuse to continue providing substandard care.

The idea of being able to sit and genuinely not think about anything for an extended period is wonderful, but when I’m in the midst of a depressive episode, almost all I’m doing is thinking. Just thinking. Thinking about how terrible everything is, how nothing matters, how I don’t care about anything. The idea of being told that the treatment for my depression is to focus on thinking about nothing seems impossible to me. My brain is constantly whirring with messages of hate and emptiness and self-loathing, and no amount of mindfulness is going to help.

We need to be investing in proper therapies for sufferers. There’s already a sense that GPs tend to fob sufferers off with medication, as a plaster to cover the wound. And it looks like mindfulness is about to join medication in this one-size-fits-all approach. But we are not cookie cut from a tray of mental health – the suffering is always far too personal.

Finding the right solution to the mental health crisis in the UK is too important to get wrong. According to Richard Layard, an economist at LSE who specialises in mental health, only 15 per cent of adults with depression or anxiety disorders receive therapy as recommended by NICE, and only 25 per cent of children with mental health disorders receive any type of treatment at all. What's more, it's also becoming far too costly. Layard recently reported that “bad mental health costs the economy at least £70bn in lost output and costs the economy £10bn in extra physical healthcare due to mental illness.”

The new Conservative government needs to invest, not cut, funding to mental health provision. With a quarter of the country having experienced some mental health issue at one time in their life, it’s surely a worthy investment. Patients facing waits of up to a year to access therapies is not good enough, and masking it with medication and mindfulness is like sticking duct tape to the bottom of the Titanic when it started sinking. It’s a nice thought, but please don’t send mindfulness out as the only rescue boat – it may save some people but the rest of us will end up left behind in the water.


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