The childhood mental health crisis demands we think differently about our society. Buddhism & mindfulness show how we can take account of our minds
When I was a kid, flinging insults around in the playground I remember us saying: ‘You’re a looney. You should be in the bin.’ It was offensive and we’ve moved on. But it still felt significant this week to hear Theresa May urging people to overcome the stigma that attaches to mental health difficulties and announcing initiatives aimed at children and adolescents.
The bad news is the spiralling mental health crisis that prompted her speech. According to the charity Young Minds, over half mental health problems start by 14 and three quarters of the young people affected don’t get the help they need. It seems to me that something very troubling is happening in our society.
Whatever the underlying social causes, I hope the response doesn’t end with some extra provision when problems have already occurred. As a Buddhist I think we need to put a concern with our minds and the mental states we experience at the heart of our culture. A helpful analogy is with our bodies. As well as treating disease when it happens, looking after the body means eating well and exercising. Then we can do more than survive, we can flourish.
For Buddhism, our minds are central to our lives. That’s obvious in a way, but in practice we usually don’t think much about our minds or mental states – it’s just me getting on with my life. But, as I see when I teach mindfulness courses for people who are struggling, that changes when something goes wrong. If you can’t get to sleep or you can’t stop worrying, it doesn’t work to just try harder. Medication and psychological healthcare are vital for many, but in addition, the Buddhist tradition encourages people to turn towards their minds and explore what’s going on. It teaches that an attitude of curiosity and friendliness helps, rather than, for example, one of impatience and grumpiness. The next step is learning to guide the mind in a more helpful direction.
This is the broader meaning of mindfulness-based approaches drawn from Buddhism. Breathing meditation and slowing down to better pay attention are techniques that can help you work with the mind; but Buddhism itself follows a holistic approach in which beliefs and behaviour are also important.
While I’m happy to see mindfulness being adopted in schools across the country, we also need to face up to the scale of the mental health crisis and respond proportionately. I believe it’s not just individuals who can benefit by turning their attention towards their minds. It’s society as whole.