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Mindful : August 2016
Imagine this scenario. Harry wakes up on a typical workday, a Wednesday, in a mood—a frighteningly intense mood. A free-floating anxiety courses through his body, making him edgy and angry. When he gets up and goes into the kitchen, he hears his roommate opening a bag of chips to put a handful in his brown- bag lunch. The crinkling of the chip bag sounds like the roar of a jet engine to Harry; it’s that irritating. He wants to scream at his roommate to quiet down and just go away, now. He keeps it together enough to let his roommate get on with his day, but these feelings scare Harry. He feels he may be losing control altogether. How can he con- centrate? How can he work with others? Perhaps he should just go back to bed and curl up in a ball, but no, he’s been there before. That could take him in a down- ward spiral of indeterminate length, a deep, dark funk. Harry stands there frozen in the kitchen, teetering uncertainly between alternative versions of hell, barely able to find a sliver of stable ground to walk on. He holds his head in his hands and starts to cry. He won- ders yet again whether life is worth living. His friends and family and coworkers will react with a familiar surge of pain and fear when they eventually hear his latest tortured cry for help. In two days, his ten-year- old son will be coming for his biweekly weekend stay— or not. Harry’s pain will soon be rippling widely. developing skills to supplement or substitute for medication or therapy. Because we know people by name—people who are our friends—or because we have grappled with an uncontrollably wild and potentially destructive mind ourselves, we think of these mental challenges and disorders as personal problems. But when you add up all the people going through this personal problem, you end up with a problem for all of us, a public health problem. It’s like traffic. It’s a personal problem when I can’t get to work on time, but the traffic that’s tied up every day citywide, eating up gas and causing pollution, is a problem for all of us, and we have to take it on together. Our collective mental health is one of those big traffic jams we need to look at from a larger perspective. According to the National Insti- tutes of Mental Health, in 2014, an estimated nearly 16 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States had at least one major depressive epi- sode in the past year, approaching 7% of all US adults. And close to 10% of adults in the country are affected by mood disorders generally, more than the population of greater Los Angeles. And these are not just people hav- ing a rough day. Living with deeply unstable moods takes a toll. The World Health Organization estimates that depression is the leading cause of disability for people in midlife and for women of all ages. The most common approach for those who seek treat- ment for depression is anti-depres- sant medications, whose usage in the US doubled between 1998 and 2010 and increased fivefold from 1988. Of women in their forties and fifties, an estimated 23% take antidepressants. Mindfulness has been demon- strated in many contexts to help people with mental illnesses and post-traumatic stress. The evidence base is small and the scientific study is in its infancy, but having practiced mindfulness meditation most of my life, I’ve come to believe that the habit of taking time to be with oneself and pay simple attention to what’s Harry’s story is based on a real person. His name has been changed and some details altered to preserve anonymity. It’s a story that is not unlike that of many people dealing with mood disorders and depres- sion. It may resonate with your own experience, since we have all felt ourselves lose control of our emotions and moods, fearing that any form of equilibrium would elude us. We know people who do battle with fluctuating moods on a regular basis. Some are on medication, some are hospitalized, and some are using methods and Barry Boyce is Editor-in-Chief of Mindful and Mindful.org. He is also author of The Mindfulness Revolution: Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists, and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life. 48 mindful August 2016 psychology