In the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, we’re talking more about mental illness and distress. Here’s how mindfulness can help in working with difficult mental states

Hearing the reflections around Robin Williams’ death, I wonder if we’re finally acknowledging the need to talk about mental distress – from the extreme form that affected Williams to the much milder stress, anxiety or depression that affect so many others.

I’m no psychologist, but I’ve become involved in this area because of the growing overlap between frontline psychology and the Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation. In the new edition of his book on suicide, Oxford University’s Professor Mark Williams presents evidence that mindfulness can help.

The best advice for anyone who’s at risk is to seek help from a professional or a trusted friend. On yesterday’s programme we heard about the dramatic encounter between a young man contemplating throwing himself off Waterloo Bridge and the passing stranger who told him: ‘You can get through this.’ ‘No one had ever told me that before,’ the young man said.

Mindfulness isn’t a miracle cure or a substitute for other approaches, but it can help people do for themselves what the stranger did for the young man. He helped him calm down, spoke kindly and offered a new perspective.

It’s easier than you may think to access a state of calm. Try it now. Take your attention to your feet. Feel what they’re touching; notice the sensations. Breathe. OK, you can stop, especially if you’re driving. The principle is that we can direct our attention away from busy or troubling thoughts by giving them a simple focus. Eventually, they settle down. The usual focus in mindfulness meditation is the breath, which most people find naturally soothing.

Having calmed down, the broader perspective on our experience that the stranger offered is more available to us. Mindfulness is a way to acknowledge difficult feelings, rather than trying to make them go away. That helps us to notice the thoughts that tend to go round and round our heads when we’re in a difficult state, rather than believing what they tell us. Then we can bring a kinder response to our experience, even when it’s painful or troubling.

The more I see of people’s distress, the more cautious I feel about proposing solutions. Everyone is different. But it’s fascinating to me that ancient Buddhist mindfulness practices are proving so resonant in secular and medical settings. The mind, which can bring us joy and plunge us into the darkest suffering, is a perennial human concern and the mind is Buddhism’s main focus. Perhaps the greatest challenge for us all is understanding our minds and guiding them more effectively.