195 MPs, peers and staff attend mindfulness classes
Almost 200 MPs, peers and their staff have attended mindfulness classes, the meditation technique that has become a wellbeing buzzword and seen a surge in uptake over the past couple of years, it has been disclosed.
The deep breathing-based practice - hailed for its benefits against everything from stress, anxiety and depression to managing long-term physical illnesses - already has a string of celebrity advocates, including Emma Watson, Angelina Jolie and Davina McCall.
To date, 115 parliamentarians and 80 of their staff have undergone mindfulness training since January 2013, after former Labour MP Chris Ruane and economist Lord Richard Layard set up a programme in Westminster.
The figure was disclosed today at the launch of the Mindful Nation UK report, following 18 months of research and inquiry led by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group into the benefits of the technique.
The group, co-chaired by Conservative MP Tim Loughton and Labour MP Jessica Morden, with Mr Ruane as honorary president, is calling for the role of mindfulness and mental wellbeing to be officially recognised and reflected in policy across a range of areas, with a focus on the healthcare, education and criminal justice systems as well as in workplaces.
Tracey Crouch, parliamentary under secretary of state for sport, tourism and heritage, has told how she has become a passionate advocate of mindfulness, since turning to the practice in a bid to overcome anxiety and depression.
She said: "In the first term of being an MP I began to experience really high levels of anxiety which spiralled into depression. I went along to my GP who prescribed me antidepressants and told me to go to therapy to see if that would help."
While she acknowledged she was "lucky" to have access to those treatments, "it wasn't really working for me", she added.
It was her parliamentary colleague Mr Ruane's email that first brought the practice to her attention as a possible solution. "I spoke to my GP about it, and he said, 'I'll do you a deal Tracey; if you do mindfulness, I'll take you off the antidepressants'."
Although "completely sceptical" at first, after a couple of weeks, she was hooked.
Many of the report's recommendations call for a shift of focus, with a greater emphasis on funding preventative measures, in the belief that as well as improving the wellbeing of the nation, it could lead to significant public spending savings in the long run.
In healthcare, for example, the reports suggests that incorporating mindfulness-based cognitive therapy into key mental health treatment pathways could save £15 for every £1 spent, offering an evidence-based effective - and cost-effective - alternative to antidepressants, which have seen a usage increase of 500% in the last 20 years.
Mark Williams, Oxford University professor of clinical psychology and director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, said: "The evidence is now there that for depression, mindfulness is as good at preventing depression as antidepressants - that's an extraordinary result."
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, one of three ministers at the launch, backed calls to create education policy that acknowledged the long term importance of wellbeing.
She said: "I want to make it very clear that of course academic achievement is important, but so too is turning out well-balanced young people who are able to fulfil all of their potential. I'm not just on this stage [saying this] as Secretary for Education, but also as a mother and also somebody who has had family experience of mental ill health. It's really a no brainer for me."
Mindfulness meditation is recommended as a regular, ideally daily, practice, but how long a person should meditate for is left up to them.
The practice is centred around using deep breathing techniques to focus the thoughts, diverting attention away from external stresses and worries, creating a sense of awareness, calm, control.
Professor Williams said: "Mindfulness is very simple - it's an innate skill. Explaining mindfulness can be quite difficult, but it's easier to explain its opposite, mindlessness - we know what mindlessness feels like, where we're so preoccupied with something that we don't look after our health and wellbeing, things escape our notice.
"It turns out we can train ourselves to reclaim that innate quality of being aware and being mindful. It's not about doing something complicated, but taking the time to check in, sufficiently often enough and with enough care and curiosity and compassion, to check whether our moods and impulses are getting the better of us, getting out of control. That's really the essence of it."