Many of us will have heard of Mindfulness in recent years, with its growing popularity and increasing recognition that it truly does make a significant difference in people’s lives. The Mental Health Foundation explains that “Mindfulness is a practice that individuals and groups can do on a day-to-day basis. A growing body of evidence has found that when people intentionally practice being mindful they feel less stressed, anxious and depressed.” One extraordinary individual who specialises in this area is Dr Alistair Wilson, a psychiatrist who was based at Gartnavel General Hospital for over 30 years, and who assisted in the founding of Mindfulness Scotland. At the beginning of 2016, the JMA Trust awarded £5,400 to a project run by both Mindfulness Scotland and Maggie’s Centre. Earlier this year, some of the JMA Team met with Dr Alistair and Kerry Craig, Centre Head at Maggie’s Glasgow, to hear more about their mission.
(All photos in this post are of different spaces in Maggie’s Glasgow, and credit of the Centre).
Alistair’s work had, for a long time, focussed on assisting people with recurrent depression. “People with episodes of depression, often they recover, but you’ve got a 30-50% chance of relapse. That’s one of the big problems in depressive illness, is the risk of relapse. My work had been around the area of cognitive therapy, which is looking at thoughts and beliefs, and it can be the thoughts and beliefs that drive you into recurrent depressive episodes. About fifteen years ago I’d been involved in work looking at fusing mindfulness, which is a sort of Eastern approach when dealing with thoughts, feelings and emotions, with cognitive therapy, which is very Western and rational. So I’d been involved in this work around putting both of these processes together, which we call Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).” Research showed that if individuals took an 8-week course, training in mindfulness, it has a “profoundly protective effect” on recurrent depression, with an incredible 50% reduction in relapse rates.
Around four years ago Alistair was diagnosed with lymphoma, very similar to John’s illness, and took early retirement. Since then he has gone through a large process of treatments, but has still continued to look for ways to help others through the area he knows best. “I developed lymphoma, and got very sick, and whilst I was in hospital I found the key thing that helped me get through that experience was my practice of mindfulness. A lot of the suffering of cancer isn’t the physical effects. The treatments are not very pleasant, with drips and chemotherapy and so on, but the biggest bit of suffering is the emotional suffering. The story that you tell yourself, the worry that you’ll get worse in the future… Will I recover? Will this treatment work? And so I realised that it was the practice of mindfulness, after I had been training and teaching in that area all those years, it was that very thing that was holding me, and helping me get through. I noticed then, around the hospital, that that kind of support just wasn’t available. Any cancer service is really busy, they’ve got to process lots of patients and get them through the right type of treatments. Which they do brilliantly at the Beatson. But they struggle to provide that other type of support. So really just through conversations here, at the Maggie Centre, I thought why don’t we provide that here, for people from the Beatson? So that’s really just the idea.”
Alistair proceeded to work with Kerry, and her team at Maggie’s, putting together Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses for patients undergoing treatment for lymphoma. “The key issue is that if you become ill, the difficulty is that your mind tends to either project into the future, “Will I get better? What’s going to happen to me?” or it goes back into the past, “Why did this happen to me? What did I do to make this happen to me?” And those two shifts of the mind, that’s what causes a lot of the emotional suffering. So by getting somebody just to be able to focus on the present moment, they find that their mind just settles, and they experience less suffering. So that’s the key strategy that mindfulness focusses on.” They took the 8-week training programme, “tweaked it, adjusted it, dismantled it, and put it all back together again for people coping with cancer. And we deliver it here in the Maggie Centre.” Maggie’s Centre Glasgow is a beautiful piece of architecture, with tonnes of natural light and views to outdoor green scenery at every turn. It hosts comfortable and welcoming spaces for relaxation, socialising, and many of their supportive services. Walking around the Centre, it is clear to see that this is an ideal environment for a course like this.
Their JMA award has funded three groups of patients between 2016 and 2017. While Alistair delivered these, he also developed a one-year training programme for staff, to enable those in the Maggie’s team to also deliver the courses. “So there’s three bits to it; the delivery of the course for patients, the training for staff so that it becomes embedded in the system, and then the research and evaluation which we’ve worked on in the past year. The JMA Trust funded the delivery of the groups and the training, and our small charity called Mindfulness Scotland funded the evaluation. So it’s a lovely collaboration between the Maggie Centre here, the JMA Trust, and Mindfulness Scotland.”
Kerry told us more about the Maggie Centre, and how these classes have impacted on both patients and the staff. “We know that with Mindfulness, the evidence is starting to suggest that it’s a very, very powerful tool for people to use. So what we’re hoping for in Glasgow, as we will have the evidence base of the impact of the 8-week course, that’s something we can present to our colleagues across Maggie’s. We can show that it’s something that’s worked for us. Two of our staff members, Debbie and Grazia, have gone through the year’s teacher training with Alistair and the team. That means once we feel comfortable, and once Alistair feels comfortable with it too, we can continue to run it from here. We hope that if the training continues, it’s something that our other staff members will be able to do, so that becomes one of their skills. We’re very clear on that in Maggie’s, when we deliver something, it has to be delivered by experts. We would never embark on doing something if we couldn’t do it to the best of our ability. That’s why our relationship with Alistair has been so important. And of course, The JMA Trust, who have supported us financially, so generously, to ensure that now, from a sustainability point of view, so that Alistair, when he is able to step back, we’re then able to continue the work that’s been set out. That’s crucial for us, and very much something we hope that the other Maggie centres will be able to embrace.”
Alistair and his team will capture formal feedback over time, and through this, valid research will be created, which will be given out to Maggie’s Centres as a reference for the effects of Mindfulness in settings like theirs. Both Kerry and Alistair told us that so far, the feedback has been really encouraging, and people have found the groups very helpful. “People have been moved to tears. In fact, one woman in at the end of the last groups said “It’s been terrible that I got cancer, but it’s been worth it to discover Mindfulness.” She said it’s shifted so much for her in her life. That’s at the far end of the spectrum, of course, but the general feedback has all been very positive.”
We are beyond proud to be involved in this partnership. Thank you to Alistair, Kerry, and all those involved at both Maggie’s Centre and Mindfulness Scotland. The work you do transforms people’s lives during some of their most difficult times. It’s projects like this that really remind us how incredibly grateful we are to our JMA supporters, as this couldn’t have happened without your hard work and generosity.