Tim Loughton is MP for East Worthing and Shoreham, and former Children’s Minister. This article was first published in Centre Write, by Bright Blue.
“MP takes bath” is apparently hot news, at least if you are a journalist scrabbling round for a front page headline at The Times. MP never takes bath or shower might be more newsworthy.
Not that you would know it, but the trigger for the story was a conference I co-hosted at Westminster last Autumn which brought together 20 MPs from over 15 countries to promote mindfulness as one of the ways we can help tackle the epidemic of mental illness in the West.
We were joined by the Godfather of Mindfulness, the American Professor John Kabat-Zinn, who has promoted the practice of mindfulness in schools, workplaces, and prisons, and as an alternative to prescription drugs in the health service.
Getting 20 MPs from a panoply of different parties and different countries in the same room agreeing with each other – and prepared to stay silent whilst practising mindfulness – is quite a tall order. One of the joys of mindfulness is that it can be done by anyone, anytime, anyplace.
These days most of us have stressful lives lived at 100mph, but just taking a few minutes out to focus on the here and now and the things around you can set you up well for the day. You can do it in a quiet corner during your lunch break, on the bus, in your favourite armchair or, in my case, in the bath.
I tend to get up early and plunge myself into my bath soon after 6am, where I spend up to an hour reading through papers and articles for meetings coming up in the day ahead, but I also reserve a little part of my ablution time for some mindfulness meditation. For me the power shower just doesn’t cut it – fending off the water jets at all angles adds to my stress levels.
The UK Parliament has been a leader in promoting the use of mindfulness not just in politics, or indeed in the bath, but all across society. Over 170 MPs and members of the Lords from all parties have now undertaken a mindfulness course which is available each week.
We have also been invited to other parliaments to pass on the good news to other parliamentarians. I co-chair the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness with Chris Ruane, a Labour MP whose constant heckling and interruptions in the Commons chamber were certainly tempered after he first went on one of the courses and promoted the benefits to colleagues.
Mindfulness is not a panacea but it certainly can help in the fight against the epidemic of mental illness in the western world.
One in four of us will suffer a mental illness at some stage in our lives. One in six women suffers from some form of perinatal mental illness and the impact on a child of poor attachment in those crucial early years can be lifelong. Over 850,000 children and young people now have a mental health problem and those are just the ones we know about.
The Prime Minister has highlighted this as a major challenge and whilst a Mental Health Bill is promised, resources are still too widely stretched and scarce professionals over-committed. Worryingly, in the last 20 years prescriptions for antidepressants have risen by five hundred percent and are used for ever younger children.
The economy suffers £950 billion in lost earnings down to depression each year and it is the major cause of workplace absences. Anything that is easy to administer and available to everyone at low cost has to be a useful addition to the
armoury in dealing with this epidemic.
Schools are increasingly adopting mindfulness. It has been shown to improve focus and concentration and help lift results, and it has the advantage of being popular and non-stigmatising unlike other mental illness approaches.
Companies have latched on to it too, and one told us that since introducing mindfulness classes for all their employees sickness absenteeism has fallen seventy one percent and productivity has improved.
We also heard from a career criminal who had been in and out of jail for 20 years, immune to all sorts of rehabilitation programmes, until he took up mindfulness which is the one thing to have kept him on the straight and narrow.
Mindfulness won’t solve everything, but for many with low level mental illness and depression it can help. If combining it with a bath floats your boat then great, but it’s not compulsory.