The mental health crisis: why we need a mindful revolution
New Zealand has a mental health crisis and a Government Inquiry seeks answers. It’s not more prozac, writes a doctor drawing on her own experience of post-natal depression. It’s finding ways to connect — like mindfulness.
It’s time to wake up. We have a mental health crisis in New Zealand and must face some big questions. Why are unprecedented numbers of our youth choosing death over the pain of being alive? Why have antidepressant prescribing rates increased by two thirds overall and doubled in youth over 10 years? Why does the People’s Mental Health Report document story after story of a traumatising system of ‘care’?
The current Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction can be a call to action, or it can be a bureaucratic tick box exercise. Will the Panel, Government and people be brave enough to answer this call? The Panel are asking for our voices; this is mine.
I speak both as a doctor and a consumer of mental health services, but first and foremost as a human. I had my own mental health journey three years ago when I suffered debilitating post-natal depression. The drugs did not work. After three months of being medicated to the eyeballs, two respite admissions, group therapy and specialist care I was still rock bottom. I knew I needed something else. Mindfulness saved me. Specifically, a mindfulness-based intervention (MBI) called Mindfulness Integrated Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (MiCBT) that combines paying attention non-judgmentally to the present, with a psychological therapy that targets thoughts and behaviours. For me this was transformative and brought profound insights into mental wellbeing.
The statistics speak of a system that’s broken and with the World Health Organisation projecting that depression will be the leading cause of disability globally by 2030 action is urgent. But throwing money at a doing more of the same thing will not fix it.
We need to tackle the root cause of the mental health crisis: loss of connection with what matters. Mindfulness, as a powerful vehicle for connection, is part of the solution, yet it is not being harnessed by our mental health system. I call on the Panel and Government to recognise our mental health crisis as a crisis of connection and make mindfulness a central strategy for mental wellbeing.
How, as a society, have we become so dangerously disconnected from what it is to be human — from life’s essence and our place in the world? It stems from a philosophy of everything being separate and independent; body, mind and spirit from each other, people from one another, and people from the natural environment.
Such thinking is reinforced by today’s culture of individualism and consumerism; life’s purpose reduced to personal material wealth and hedonism, our bodies to vehicles that move our heads from A to B for the next dollar or thrill, authentic relationships replaced with unidimensional online social media connections and nature seen as something to dominate. In this world view the biomedical model predominates and mental illness is a brain neurotransmitter disorder that’s fixed by a pill. This thinking is so pervasive that it is accepted as truth and rarely challenged. We need a radical paradigm shift to overturn this.
Ancient wisdom (like te Ao Māori) and new science are that shift. They tell us instead that we are part of a complex ecosystem in which all is inter-connected and inter-dependent. We are biologically programmed to be connected — we have a second brain in the gut, neurons that respond to the emotions of others and ‘love’ hormones like oxytocin. When we are authentically connected we are well. When we are disconnected we are sick. We feel lost, lonely and eventually despairing; life becomes meaningless. Disconnection starts in childhood when parental ‘love’ that is conditional on suppressing socially ‘unacceptable’ emotions leads to insecure attachment. The fast pace and uncertainty of the today’s world fuels this further. Digital ‘connectedness’ is a futile attempt to find connection in a society where the family unit and local community have broken down.
So how can we find true connection? By connecting first with ourselves. Mindfulness is a path to this. Defined as the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance it means waking up from a life lived on automatic pilot — ‘turning up for your life’. It’s a tool of awareness and insight that teaches us how to connect with our ‘whole-selves’ — our bodies, emotions, thoughts, deep aspirations, people and the wider environment. This brings meaning and mental wellbeing. Mindfulness showed me how to ‘be with’ my distressing symptoms which paradoxically made them dissipate, but for me its biggest gift was helping make sense of this ‘dark night of the soul’. Humans are sense makers. We can get through most things if they make sense. When the world looks senseless, hope is lost and there is little reason to keep living.
There are several paths to meaning and connection, like being in nature, immersion in creativity or physical activity (being in ‘the zone’), an authentic conversation, the unconditional love of another. The power of mindfulness however, is that it is learnable, relevant across diverse populations, covers prevention, promotion and treatment options and is supported by science. Despite this and the successes of homegrown programmes (like Pause Breathe Smile, ATAWHAI, Mindfulness and Awareness Aotearoa, Renew Your Mindand M3) Government funding is lacking.
Our Government is pioneering wellbeing initiatives like the 2019 Wellbeing Budget. To be a real world-leader it needs to spearhead a fresh approach to mental wellbeing and champion ‘connection through mindfulness’ with:
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink our approach to mental health. Let’s take a breath and connect with what it really means to be well.
Mindfulness advocates are campaigning to have the Government support mindfulness programmes in schools and mental health services. You can sign the petitions here:
Written by Dr Brigid O’Brien, Public Health Physician (MBChB, MPH) May 2018.