Meditation sessions are proving a hit for members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists at their Annual Meeting at Imperial College, London – with a growing number claiming they are turning to the spiritual discipline to combat anxiety and burnout.
Meditation workshops, run by the College’s 2,000-strong Spirituality Special Interest Group, are overbooked. “It seems to be an indication of the need for spiritual nourishment, something that College members are not finding easily in the outside world,” says Dr Sarah Eagger, chair of the Spirituality Group.
Dr Eagger, consultant psychiatrist at St Charles Hospital, London, said her daily meditation practice was as important in her everyday work as her medical training. “A strong spiritual practice really comes into its own when you are faced with a very distressed patient, while also coping with the pressures of working in teams under immense stress, and then having to spend hours filling in forms that make you feel that you are not trusted. I am stressed enough as it is. Without meditation practice to keep a still space inside, I would be suffering burn-out.”
Dr Andrew Powell, the founding chair of the Spirituality Group, said: “There is a level of concern within the profession about being trapped in a culture of measurement and box-ticking. The result is that it’s becoming ever more difficult to practice psychiatry, to contain the anxiety and concerns of our patients, to maintain a common humanity and avoid getting caught up in an ‘us and them’ mentality.”
However, many mental health practitioners struggle to understand the relevance of spirituality to their work, the meeting was told. Julia Head, specialist chaplain at the Maudsley Hospital in London, told the conference that spirituality is increasingly recognised as a vital part of good mental health care.
“The National Institute for Mental Health in England is just the latest body to acknowledge the limitations of modern medicine by recommending that practitioners provide spiritual support alongside physical treatments, including medication,” said Dr Head who coordinates ‘recovery’ training programmes for 300 mental health practitioners in the London boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth.
“Practitioners should be encouraging hope, and fostering a desire for change and the possibility of recovery. Yet this idea of healing, as opposed to clinical treatment, is something that is foreign to many practitioners,” she said. ‘They feel trapped in a culture where measuring clinical activity is the priority. It takes them time to understand that in order to support their patients’ recovery, they need to feel valued themselves and to take time for their own nurture.’
The meeting was also told that the evidence-base for the therapeutic value of meditation for a wide range of health problems was significantly stronger than most pharmaceutical products. A new meta-analysis of 823 randomly controlled trials of meditation, conducted by the US National Institute of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, showed the clinical benefits of meditation across a wide range of physical and emotional disorders.
“Meditation is a way of life rather than quick fix achieved by paying for eight sessions or using gimmicks such as incense, music and light,” Dr Avdesh Sharma, past president of the Indian Psychiatric Association, said. “It doesn’t work immediately. You need to practice it for several weeks before the effects begin to be felt.”
Dr Sharma added: “If meditation was a drug, we’d all want shares in it. It has a beneficial effect on most physical health problems and is very effective for mental health problems significantly reducing levels of depression and anxiety by improving relaxation, oxygenation of the brain, insomnia and energy levels.”