Entering into 2018, mental wellness is one of the most pressing issues we face as a country.
Mental illness and addiction will impact 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.
From health care, social services and income support, the economic costs of this epidemic is estimated to be more than $50-billion. Canadian businesses also lose $6-billion annually as a result of lost productivity, absenteeism and turnover.
Canada's youth are 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.
And our younger children, those born from 1995-2012 (the "iGen,") have been described by Professor Jean Twenge PhD, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, as, "...on the brink of the worst mental health crisis in a decade" as a result of the ubiquity of smartphones and screens in their lives.
The ripple effect that this national mental-health crisis is having on our families, workplaces and communities is staggering. In 2012, Statistics Canada found that approximately 11 million Canadians had a family member with a mental-health or addiction problem. Not surprisingly, more than one-third reported that their own lives had subsequently been directly and adversely affected by their family members' mental issues.
New tools are clearly needed to help navigate the stresses of the terrain ahead. So, 2018 should be the year we collectively look at more innovative, nimble and proactive options in terms of supporting mental wellness among Canadians, both individually but even more, collectively, and as part of our public policy.
But what is meditation and mindfulness?
Meditation and mindfulness is a very low (to no cost), non invasive and research backed tool that can help more people have new ways to proactively invest in their emotional and mental health.
One of the challenges of talking about meditation and mindfulness is the confusion around what exactly it is, how to do it and then how much needs to be done to achieve the benefits of the practice.
At its core, a simple meditation practice can be done as easily as just sitting or lying comfortably, with your eyes closed and focusing your attention on a series of deep, steady breaths.
The University of Oregon found that meditation techniques actually result in physical brain changes that protect against mental illness
Medical research has found that five minutes of conscious deep breathing, with no distractions, is all that's needed to achieve the significant physical, mental and emotional benefits of meditation.
It may initially sound overly simplistic, but the reason that pro-athletes, celebrities, Fortune 100 CEOs and Silicon Valley founders rhapsodize about the practice, and why leading global brands like Google, Target and General Mills are incorporating meditation and mindfulness programs into their workplaces, is that the medical and scientific data shows that it works.
The data case
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.
Research also shows a regular meditation and mindfulness 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 from John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., found that meditation and mindfulness reduce anxiety, depression and pain.
Similarly, a study in the Journal of Health Psychology found that meditation and mindfulness lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Among children, there is a growing body of research that shows a regular meditation and mindfulness practice helps children in multiple ways including improved focus, a decline in hyperactivity, improved attendance and grades; increased social and emotional development as well as better concentration are other benefits.
For the elderly, research has shown that meditation offsets age related cognitive decline and to even enhance cognitive function. Researchers at UCLA have also found that meditation can reduce loneliness among older adults.
The Tool We Need In 2018
Imagine if in 2018 each of us committed to a daily or at least regular meditation practice — a campaign I'm calling #FiveToThrive — and then worked to actively to support our friends, families, colleagues and communities in doing the same.
Consider how this one small personal nudge would positively ripple out into our lives, cities and our country.
According to organizations like Vision of Humanity, the Legatum Prosperity Index and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the most mindful nations in the world — currently dominated by Nordic countries — are ones that enjoy lower stress levels, a peaceful society, a strong work life balance and excellent quality of life.
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Of course, these positive benefits are the result of numerous other social, cultural and public programs that go beyond personal meditation or mindfulness habits. Similarly, meditation and mindfulness are in no way replacements for better medical care, improved social services or pharmaceutical intervention. Yet it's a highly accessible, non invasive, data based supplement and positive augmentation to existing treatment options.
Much like ParticipAction was launched by the Canadian government to leverage the personal fitness movement and to make healthy living and physical fitness a part of public policy in order 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.
But the beauty of meditation and mindfulness is that there's no need to wait for this to happen.
Even the greatest skeptics of meditation and mindfulness should agree that given the state of mental wellness in our society today, it certainly can't hurt to try something new.
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