Pro athletes, celebrities, Fortune 100 CEOs and Silicon Valley billionaires have rhapsodized on how meditation and mindfulness are the most effective tools for health, personal performance and well-being since, well, exercise. Like yoga and running before it, mindfulness tools and meditation programs are now big business – with popular apps like Headspace, the Mindfulness App and Buddhify receiving tens of millions of downloads.
Mindfulness and meditation are simply about regularly exercising the ability to be, deliberately and calmly, fully in the moment. This requires an individual to still his or her mind, control emotions and breathe regularly and deeply. It's a simple habit that produces incredible (data-based) results – which is why leading global companies such as Google, Target and General Mills are incorporating it into their organizations.
Research shows regular practice reduces both physical and mental-health costs and improves emotional quotient (essential for social cohesion and success in a knowledge economy) and resilience to stress, as well as employee focus, concentration and productivity.
Scientists at the University of Oregon found that meditation techniques actually result in physical brain changes that protect against mental illness by increasing the signalling connection in the brain and the density of protective tissue.
From a public-health perspective, Canada should be experimenting and implementing what research suggests is a cost-effective, non-invasive means of helping to address our national mental-health crisis.
Mental illness and addiction affects one in five Canadians in their lifetime. Canada is also the second highest per capita consumer of opioids in the world – and, according to the International Narcotics Control Board, these numbers are rising.
Data show that Canada's youth are also suffering from rising levels of anxiety, stress, depression and suicide. A large-scale 2016 study tracking Ontario students for the past 20 years found that one-third had moderate to severe symptoms of psychological distress – an increase from two years earlier.
The economic costs of these numbers are significant. Mental illness broadly costs the Canadian economy more than $50-billion (from health care, social services and income support) and Canadian businesses lose $6-billion annually as a result of lost productivity, absenteeism and turnover.
Even more staggering is the ripple effect that our national mental-health crisis is having on our families, workplaces and communities. Statistics Canada in 2012 found that approximately 11 million Canadians had a family member with a mental-health or addiction problem. More than one-third reported that their own lives had been directly and adversely affected by their family members' mental issues.
The traditional frame of reactive acute care is no longer sufficient or optimal.
It's time for public-health officials, policy makers and the public to get behind a commitment to scaling up access to meditation and mindfulness programs. These practices shouldn't remain the stronghold of the affluent who have the time and resources to invest in cultivating stronger mental wellness. Information and opportunities to practice meditation should be available to all Canadians – with schools, hospitals, workplaces and even public transport or the CBC as possible points of delivery.
Successful models that could be scaled up are already operating across the country, and the first step should be to survey these existing success stories for templates that could be nimbly offered more widely. For instance, in the Toronto District School Board, the Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate Institute introduced lessons in mindfulness with six workshops over two months. Similarly, the Vancouver School Board offers teachers mindfulness training through the MindUp program.
This is not a replacement for better medical care, improved social services or pharmaceutical intervention – it's a supplement or augmentation to existing treatments and a pro-active means of strengthening the ability of more individuals to personally invest effectively in their mental and emotional wellness.
A national strategy and commitment to promoting mindfulness and meditation would also positively nudge forward our collective ability to better navigate other social and health priorities. For instance, meditation has been shown to alleviate loneliness among seniors, reduce stress among caregivers and help promote focus and reduce anxiety among youth.
Much like ParticipAction was launched by the Canadian government to promote healthy living and physical fitness (and to battle exorbitant health-care costs), the next frontier is to do the same with our country's mental well-being by publicly scaling up education, understanding and access to meditation and mindfulness.