Is mindfulness the answer?

There’s a lot to enjoy about academia, but grad programs and careers in research can also be stressful. Grad students, for example, are six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population, in a study conducted pre-pandemic. These levels were higher among women for anxiety (43% of women, 34% of men) and depression (41% of women, 35% of men), with even higher levels among transgender people (55% and 57% for depression and anxiety respectively). This study did not consider race. In short, graduate program related stress might be higher among some people. 

To help alleviate this stress, my previous institution would hold mindfulness trainings for graduate students and faculty. Mindfulness and meditation can have positive benefits on physical and mental health, and they have been offered as ways to reduce stress. A meta-analysis (using statistical methods to merge findings from multiple studies) of 15 randomized controlled trials found that mindfulness has small, but significant, positive effects on anxiety, depression, stress, and well-being. The long-term effects are less clear, which might mean mindfulness has to be a recurring practice. 

Since mindfulness seems to work, at least a little, and at least for a short time, should we all be encouraging mindfulness practices? 

Another great stress reliever: pets! (This is Dexter)

Perhaps because of these benefits, mindfulness has been adopted into many groups, including corporate life – for better or, maybe, for worse. “The mindfulness conspiracy,” an article in The Guardian in 2019, talked about the “evangelical” nature of the $4 billion mindfulness movement. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) is a largely Westernized version of certain meditative practices, sold to corporations as a way to maximize profit by ensuring that their employees are performing well. The mindfulness movement has spun out into other organizations, too, like universities. Demonstrating this popularity in the mainstream, Google searches for the term “mindfulness” grew in popularity in recent years and continue to remain relatively high. Mindfulness has certainly been popularized, at least in some circles. 

Global popularity of “mindfulness” as a Google search term, with “100” being the highest popularity since 2004 (source)

During the pandemic, universities were promoting mental health resources like mindfulness in a bid to reach stressed, depressed, and anxious students. Many students still fell through the cracks. Even with the best of intentions, mindfulness works more like a pain reliever for a headache. Take away the treatment, mindfulness in this case, and the underlying condition is still there. In other words, the institution might still be organized in a way that causes long-term stress and harm to employees (or students). 

Because academia is associated with such high anxiety and depression levels, especially for more vulnerable populations, mindfulness recommendations can sometimes function as a bandaid solution. We should also be doing more to improve mental health and access. Encouraging connection, providing mentorship, and supporting a healthy work-life balance might be some examples of ways to help, and some institutions, departments, and even labs may do this better than others. How can we support each other, in addition to providing mental health resources? Not all of us have the ability to affect change at institutions, but we do have power in supporting our peers and the people we interact with. 

And lastly, if you’re still interested in mindfulness as a recurring practice for your personal development, here are a few ways to get started.  

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