Mental health healer, heal thyself

Semel Institute to offer mindfulness instruction to researchers, doctors, staff.
woman meditating on grass
January 18, 2023
By Sandy Cohen
Estimated read time: 4 minutes

Amid the national mental health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, political division, social unrest and climate change, the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA is offering mindfulness instruction to its physicians, researchers and staff.

“The pressure on health care practitioners in general, and particularly mental health care practitioners, is enormous, and we're seeing that among our own ranks,” says Helena Hansen, MD, PhD, interim director of the Semel Institute, which conducts mental health research and trains the next generation of psychiatric clinicians and scientists. “It's even harder for us to maintain our own morale and our own centeredness on why we're doing this work in the face of a lot of challenges.”

Dr. Helena Hansen

As a young physician, Dr. Hansen’s mentor would often say, “Healer, heal thyself.” In that spirit, Dr. Hansen reached out to the leaders of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) to create a menu of mindfulness tools to help the Semel Institute’s mental health professionals restore and center themselves.

“Of course, patients will benefit,” says Dr. Hansen, who is also interim chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

“We’ll be in the position to share (these tools) with patients,” she says. “But the fundamental thing is we have to be able to survive as a group of people providing mental health care.”

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of “paying attention to our present-moment experiences with openness, curiosity and a willingness to be with what is,” says Diana Winston, MARC’s director of mindfulness education.

The practice helps reduce stress, improve attention and cultivate emotional regulation, among other benefits.

“It’s a helpful self-care tool,” Winston says.

Studies show mindfulness practice can reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. A recent randomized controlled trial found that adult volunteers experienced improved psychological well-being and decreased cognitive rumination after just four weeks of mindfulness training.

Diana Winston

Mindfulness practices have also been shown to increase work satisfaction and reduce burnout among mental health professionals specifically, according to a review of two dozen scientific studies.

A year of mindfulness at Semel

The exact curriculum Semel Institute will employ will be finalized based on feedback from inaugural workshop participants, but will include lectures on mindfulness, drop-in meditation sessions and group interactions, says Marvin Belzer, PhD, associate director of MARC and adjunct associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences.

MARC offers various classes and programs to the public, including free drop-in sessions online, a six-week course that teaches mindfulness basics, and guided meditations available on demand through the free UCLA Mindful app.

“The idea would be to make mindfulness a center of attention within the institute,” Dr. Belzer says.

He and his MARC colleagues have developed a toolkit for Semel department chairs and division leaders to introduce the benefits of mindfulness and scope of activities available.

“We want to make it easy for them to say, ‘OK, this looks interesting,’” he says.

Dr. Marvin Belzer

Many health care practitioners have heard about the benefits of mindfulness but have yet to try the practice for themselves, he says, so this institute-wide initiative could provide the perfect opportunity to begin.

One of the challenges, Dr. Hansen says, will be for already-busy scientists and physicians at the Semel Institute to make room in their schedule for one more thing. But simply carving out that time would be a win in her eyes.

“For me, that would be a measure of success,” she says. “Not just that people are skillful at mindfulness meditation techniques, but that they're reorienting to the idea: This is my priority to make some space in my day, to just be and not only to be, but to be with others.”

Dr. Hansen has experienced this reorientation for herself. She recently started participating in a weekend mindfulness meditation group, which she says has changed her mindset.

“It tells me that, as bad as things might seem, there’s always something else,” she says. “There’s always another place to be, from which I can see things in a different light. So if others in our department and institute begin to craft that space, that in itself would be a big achievement.”

Learn more about the Mindful Awareness Research Center.