It may be time to start treating claims from the “mindfulness” industry with the same level of scepticism usually reserved for the pharmaceutical industry, a prominent psycho-oncologist has suggested.
Professor Suzanne Chambers, director of the Menzies Health Institute at Griffith University, urged an audience at the recent Australasian Society for Behavioural Health and Medicine and Australian Psychological Society conference to seek evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness as a health treatment.
While there is evidence mindfulness may be helpful for patients with recurrent depression and anxiety, there have been increasing efforts to provide mindfulness to patients with chronic diseases as a way of reducing their illness-related anxieties.
“Mindfulness is something that arises from the Buddhist tradition,” Professor Chambers told The Medical Republic.
“It’s not just sitting and being quiet, it’s about becoming observant of your own experience, becoming more aware of your own reactions in the present moment, and detaching from that experience to try and reduce the negative effects it might have on you.”
This made it an obviously attractive strategy for patients with certain conditions.
But Professor Chambers, who has spent more than 20 years providing psychological support to people with cancer, cautioned against uncritically accepting the claims made by this billion-dollar industry.
In her own study of almost 200 men with advanced prostate cancer, an eight-week mindfulness-based cognitive program delivered by trained professionals had no impact on their wellbeing compared with usual medical care.
This meant no change when it came to psychological distress, anxiety about PSA testing, cancer-related distress, quality of life or a positive psychological change as a result of the cancer.
On the other hand, evidence seemed to suggest that mindfulness might have benefits on similar metrics for women with breast cancer, Professor Chambers said.
But it was vital that clinicians could point to good evidence of the benefit before recommending a mindfulness therapy to patients.
“When we recommend somebody uptake a psychological therapy, there is a cost to that,” Professor Chambers said.
“There might not be financial cost – although in many cases there will be – but there is also a cost in terms of the time and investment in resources from that person.
There was also debate occurring around the industry push for mindfulness programs in schools and workplaces.
Take somebody living in socioeconomic disadvantage and having the normal emotional response of unhappiness with that situation, “should we be trying to get them to be mindful? Or should we be trying to induce social change that changes the circumstances that has led to their current feeling?” Professor Chalmers asked.
“It’s not a panacea.”