Young men trying mindfulness on grass

The role of mindfulness in prevention and early intervention

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By Kim O’Neill, CEO, On the Line

Mindfulness. Why do so many organisations talk up its benefits? Why do mental health practitioners recommend mindfulness to help with issues like anxiety and depression? And what is it about mindfulness that’s seen it adopted by entrepreneurs, schools, businesses, government departments, prisons, elite athletes and even the New Zealand and United States armed forces?


What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness in its simplest form means being aware of the present. It may well be described as “self-regulation of attention” or the practice or ability to “let go of taking things for granted”. Smiling Mind describes it as consisting of two parts: “learning to focus attention on one thing, and being able to bring the attention back when the mind gets distracted” as well “the attitude you bring to paying attention — being open, non-judging, and curious about what you are focusing on”.

Mindfulness traces its origins from Buddhist belief. Its followers not only practise various techniques associated with what we generally refer to as mindfulness, but also adhere to specific spiritual beliefs and moral values.

Historically, aspects of this system were adopted by Western practitioners. As a consequence, what is popularly referred to as mindfulness today is usually a secular adaptation that embodies little of the practice’s original spiritual pursuits. In fact, this is likely one reason why the term mindfulness relaxation is occasionally used.


Why mindfulness?

Spirituality and morality aside, there are compelling reasons why the practice of mindfulness appears to be getting ever-more popular. Quite simply, mindfulness can help bring about positive change in a person’s life by influencing and improving their mood and outlook.

Among its many benefits, mindfulness is known to help improve self-control, calmness, memory, attention and concentration. It is also widely reported to help reduce stress and worry, rumination (i.e. a “chatty” or a “wandering mind”) and feelings like anger, depression and sadness.


Mindfulness, prevention and early intervention

One of the great benefits of mindfulness is that it is accessible to almost anyone. You don’t need a prescription, no appointment is required with a medical professional, and a vast pool of free mindfulness tools is available online, from guided mediation recordings to fact sheets.

Indeed, there is strong evidence that suggests mindfulness is an effective method for helping reduce the severity of psychological distress associated with conditions like depression and anxiety (the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorders in Australia).

Given that mindfulness is widely regarded as helpful for people with these conditions, mindfulness could be seen not just as a form of treatment, but also as a form of early intervention and early prevention.

Focussing on early intervention that addresses issues when they manifest as low intensity concerns — rather than delaying until problems become chronic, acute or destructive — is likely to lead to better mental health outcomes.

It stands to reason then that wider adoption of mindfulness could play an important part in reducing the burden of disease resulting from mental health issues, currently estimated to cost the Australian economy $60 billion annually.

Of course, mindfulness alone is not the solution to reducing the burden of disease resulting from mental health concerns. Rather, a recalibrated mental health system with greater emphasis on prevention and early intervention is likely to ‘nip in the bud’ many of the acute population-wide outcomes resulting from mental health disorders. This is something that has been extensively detailed in On the Line’s submission to the Productivity Commission.

It should be noted that mindfulness may not be appropriate for everyone, especially those who are experiencing psychotic episodes as symptoms. As with any intervention, caution and medical or psychological support should be sought if you are unsure.

The potential for mindfulness to play a greater role in early intervention and prevention of mental illness is compelling. Considering its accessibility, very low cost (for example, compared to face-to-face psychological counselling) and ease of practising, the application for wider adoption of mindfulness should be explored further.


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