‘Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience…Think of the old cliché about the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.’
The Western world has a higher standard of living than at any other time in history, if we consider things such as life expectancy, infant mortality, wealth, comfort and material goods. Every year there is some new report analysing the happiest countries and the Netherlands is always in the top 10, but the search for happiness seems ever elusive. Approximately 30% of adults suffer from a recognised psychological disorder and mental health problems account for 20% of diseases in the World Health Organisation (WHO) European Region. The WHO estimates depression is the fourth costliest and most debilitating disease worldwide and will be the second largest by 2020, and 1 in 2 people will consider suicide at some point. In the Netherlands, almost 20% of people will suffer from anxiety disorders at some point in their life and 42.2 million euros is spent on anti-depressive drugs per year. Children are also not spared from mental illness, with over 1.1 million prescriptions for ADHD in 2011. This all seems contradictory if we are indeed living in a ‘Golden Age’.
In his book Identiteit (Bezige Bij, 2012), the Belgian psychoanalyst and professor of Psychology at Ghent University Paul Verhaeghe discusses modern mental illness at length. He notes that while Victorian society was dominated by sexual repression leading to neuroses, our modern predominantly neoliberal Western society is dominated by competition, individualism and a simple delineation between winners and losers. He correlates the effects of meritocratic neoliberalism with the rise in instances of anxiety, stress, depression and burnout. He is also critical of the reliance on medication and dubious mental illness diagnoses. He notes, for example, that for a child to be diagnosed with ADHD according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the standard reference manual in the Netherlands, he or she needs to exhibit either hyperactivity or concentration problems. However, the DSM’s competitor, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), requires both symptoms to be present.
One of the most striking developments in recent years has been the rise of mindfulness, a Western interpretation of ancient Buddhist practices and Vipassana Meditation. This is increasingly being embraced by the medical establishment as an effective treatment for a range of mental disorders, with scientific studies increasingly showing it is often more effective than medication.
Susan Bögels is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, and professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the UvA. She is also director of the Academic Treatment Centre for Parent and Child UvA Minds, which offers children, adolescents and their parents help with a wide range of disorders, such as ADHD, anxiety disorders, depression and autism. She is also one of the leading figures in the Netherlands in the field of mindfulness and its scientific application as treatment method.
In this interview, she discusses what is wrong with Western society, why mindfulness could be a panacea for all mental ills and the hard scientific evidence on which that is based, as well as discussing her other main research interest: the transmission of anxiety from parents to children and the danger of overlooking the importance of a father’s role in the family.