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Making sense of mental health through mindfulness

Toronto, March 10, 2016

By Corinne Ton That

Rachael Frankford leads a meditation session
Rachael Frankford leads a meditation session. Frankford founded the MAST program to teach people emotion regulation skills through mindfulness practice. (Photo by Katie Cooper)

For their first mindfulness exercise, participants of the Mindful Awareness Stabilization Training, or MAST program, practice eating a raisin.

Michelle Despres, a social worker at St. Michael’s Hospital and co-facilitator of the program, asks participants to focus on details of the dried fruit – what it feels and looks like. Then she asks them to put the raisin in their mouths and eat it, mindfully.

“Mindfulness helps people become more aware of their inner world, which can reduce stress that comes from thinking about the past or future,” said Despres. “There’s benefit to being in the present moment.”

Mindfulness meditation classes are offered to patients with chronic pain at St. Michael’s. This program, however, focuses on mindfulness therapies for patients with mental health issues.

Rachael Frankford, a social worker at St. Michael’s, founded the MAST program two years ago to teach people emotion regulation skills through mindfulness practice. That means learning to understand feelings, thoughts and sensations by focusing on the present moment, and learning to “sail as smoothly as possible regardless of the wind and waves,” said Frankford.

“This program helps people understand how to widen their window of tolerance – that zone where they’re able to thrive in daily life. So we give them meditations to do, which can be as short as three minutes, to help them build their tolerance.”

The program comprises of four two-hour sessions. Each one begins with a meditation exercise, followed by discussions of how people are implementing mindfulness practice at home, and lessons about topics such as self-care and emotion regulation.

   
“People learn that there are external factors and things going on in the brain that can bring about mental health issues,” said Rachael Frankford, a social worker at St. Michael’s. “The insights that people have are really amazing once they learn how to understand their own mental health.”

Participants range from 16 to 70 years old, and all have experienced mental health issues – from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, to psychosis.

“People learn that there are external factors and things going on in the brain that can bring about mental health issues,” said Frankford. “The insights that people have are really amazing once they learn how to understand their own mental health.”

Tara Johnson said she suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after growing up in an abusive family.

“When I turned 41, everything kind of exploded,” she said. “I had anxiety building up over the years and I even reached the point of giving up.”

Johnson started applying the lessons she learned in MAST in her personal life and saw a dramatic change. She learned to care for herself and identify the things she needs to feel comfortable and safe throughout the day.

“Once I began being mindful, I found my system started to relax,” said Johnson. “Identifying our needs is a basic life skill, just like brushing our teeth or washing our hair. I can’t imagine how different my life would be if I had these skills since the time I was a little girl.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.