An Interview with Professor Gerry Bodeker, Chair of the Mental Wellness Initiative of the Global Wellness Institute
With the huge leap in science and medicine, people can live much longer than before. However, do we live better? The fact is that the world is now suffering a mental crisis. Data shows that one in four persons has mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. Therefore, people begin to explore ways for mental wellness improvement. Resorts, hotels and spas are also thinking of delivering more mental health services, with some really doing a great job.
The Mental Wellness Initiative of the Global Wellness Institute is undoubtedly the frontline of this global mental health campaign. This Initiative is chaired by Professor Gerry Bodeker, a clinical psychologist by training and a researcher on integrative medicine and wellness. He has taught in medical sciences at Oxford University for two decades and works with the private sector, governments and UN, advising on culturally-themed wellness strategies. He has specialised in Asian traditions of medicine and healthy lifestyles. Recently Professor Bodeker has been more dedicated to exploring the truly effective pathways to promote mental wellness and revealing the science behind it. SpaChina has interviewed him.
When and why did you begin to focus on mental wellness? What are the characteristics (symptoms) of a mentally disordered person?
I am a clinical psychologist by training and, through learning Transcendental Meditation in my mid-twenties, I came to realize that meditation was one of a number of pathways that was able to build inner strength, increase happiness and create resilience and fulfillment in life. Most importantly, this could be managed by the person individually and not via a therapist. Subsequent research has shown that meditation can reduce anxiety, depression and deep stress-related conditions and generates happiness and fulfillment on an ongoing basis. And since then, we have learned that there is a scientific explanation for the benefits of many wellness modalities, such as exercise, healthy nutrition, rest and sleep, so that we are able to move beyond talking about mental illness and be confident in the new science of mental wellness.
In responding to the question, “what is mental illness?”, the American Psychological Association, with help from former First Lady Michelle Obama, launched a campaign to encourage troubled Americans to seek care for mental health problems and to end the stigma associated with mental health issues. The campaign urges people to watch for 5 signs that someone is suffering and may need help:
- A Change in Personality. If someone is acting like a very different person, or not acting or feeling like themselves, this is a warning sign.
- Uncharacteristic Anxiety, Anger, or Moodiness.
- Social Withdrawal and Isolation.
- Lack of Self-Care or Risky Behaviours.
- A Sense of Hopelessness or Feeling Overwhelmed.1
In brief, how can people achieve mental health? What factors facilitate mental health and what factors hinder it?
Evidence shows that the big areas that impact mental health and wellness are: our physical environment and pollution; our social environment and personal relationships; nutrition and our gut health via the newly-discovered gut-brain axis; movement, including physical exercise, dance, Tai Chi and yoga; proper rest, including the benefits of good sleep, of stress-reducing meditation, and also of massage; being in Nature is very important as humans evolved in Nature and have only become cut off from Nature in recent generations – nature restores our sense of wellbeing and enhances physical health, as shown by researchers at Nippon Medical University in Tokyo. Threats to mental wellbeing include smoking, lack of adequate exercise, poor social relationships, pollution, alcohol and substance use, unhealthy diet, lack of exposure to sunlight and Nature.
What gives us hope, and what we report on in the Global Wellness Institute’s White Paper on Mental Wellness is that the brain is capable of renewing itself, of growing new connections, and even new brain cells, throughout the lifespan, given the right stimuli to do this. Evidence now shows that meditation, yoga, dance, exercise, nutrition and many other mental wellness pathways all contribute to brain growth – or brain plasticity, as it is called. This notion of brain plasticity is a core understanding of how mental wellness can be achieved with the right lifestyle pathways.2
What is the current situation of people’s mental status worldwide? Do people consciously seek ways to improve their mental health? What are the popular ways? Are there any similarities or differences between Western consumers and Asian consumers?
The world is suffering from a mental wellness crisis: Roughly one billion people suffer from anxiety, and one in four people experience mental disorders. The global psychiatrist market was valued at $795.1 billion in 20173 and the global psychologists market was valued at $39.8 billion4.
In addition, recent years have seen increased use of online therapy and wellness-based mobile applications. This is called virtual mental health treatment. Now there is a fast-growing market in virtual mental wellness programs that guide people on self-directed paths to mental wellbeing and create virtual communities which offer mutual support to members.
Asia has been slower than the West to acknowledge and support mental health matters. The region has reflected traditional views that this is something not to be talked about and that can cause embarrassment to a family. Consequently, mental health has been neglected and somewhat stigmatized. Now, there is a call in prominent urban centres of Asia such as Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore, to recognise the need for mental health outreach and for the promotion of a mental wellness philosophy and pathways. While the West takes an individualistic approach to diagnosis and care, Asia is more likely to take a family and community centred approach, meaning that unique mental heath and wellness strategies are needed within Asia. For this, there is a wealth of knowledge in the health traditions of South, Southeast and East Asia, all of which have multiple pathways for building resilience, brain development and mental wellness throughout the lifespan.
The big mental wellness trends globally are still yoga, meditation, vegetarian diet, exercise including Tai Chi and Qi Gong, much of which draws on Asian traditions of wellbeing. As of 2015, the number of people practicing yoga in the U.S. alone stood at around 36.7 million and is projected to reach over 55 million by 2020. Revenue from the yoga industry in the United States amounted to 9.09 billion U.S. dollars in 2015 and is projected to reach over 11 billion U.S. dollars by 2020. Globally it is a much larger figure.
What will be the latest trends concerning mental health? What kind of spiritual experiences will future consumers seek and what goals do they expect to achieve?
Mental wellness in the workplace is coming up as a lead priority. Adults spend the majority of their lives in the workplace and to have the opportunity to feel physically and mentally well at work and with the support of the workplace is becoming a goal that leading companies are recognizing and responding to. Also, mobile apps-based programs promoting mental wellness are becoming a big trend. But the big point is that self-directed mental wellness, rather than therapist-based, is leading the way in mental health. This includes dance, yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, wellness nutrition, etc.
The quest for spiritual experiences is really a quest for meaning and a sense of purpose in life through connection with something larger and more powerful than one’s individual self. This can be a very major part of the mental wellness journey and can lead people to seek retreats and courses with a spiritual focus and spiritual pathways to mental wellness. Or it can be one component of a more everyday approach to resilience, purpose and sharing wellness with others – i.e. compassion in action.
What is the current performance of hotels and spas in offering mental wellness products and services? Do you have any suggestions for them? Could you share with us one or two successful cases that you have seen?
My colleagues and I have addressed this in the White Paper on Mental Wellness. While observing the statistics about worldwide depression, stress, and loneliness, there is also a greater expenditure on spa experiences and wellness holidays and retreats. With this in view, it becomes increasingly important for the spa and wellness industry/owners as well as therapists and practitioners to recognize the responsibility they have in supporting individuals on the road to a better and more optimal state of mental wellbeing. It also indicates that in order to support someone on a journey to improving mental wellbeing, trained health-care providers are key. But perhaps most importantly, is the role of the employer to provide a positive and purposeful work environment, a healthy workplace culture and is committed to healthy mental wellbeing for its entire staff. The practitioners themselves – who touch, interact with and deliver services to guests – need to be holistically cared for by their employers. In order to deliver sound mind and body treatments, they must be of sound mind and body themselves. The evidence is clear that organizations that truly care for their employees’ overall mental health & wellbeing will be the future industry leaders. In our ever-complicated, fast-changing world, mental wellness needs to be a key component of any comprehensive wellness solution.
Some hotels, resorts and spas have responded to this trend by developing more customization and personal connection with an emphasis on mindfulness, which has grown in line with the holistic pursuit of stress management. Some of the more advanced workplaces also understand the benefits of these services for promoting an engaged and healthy workforce. It is not at all unusual for workplaces today to offer team-supported physical activity challenges to get their employees to move more; offer nutrition seminars onsite and provide healthier cafeteria options. In-house massage chairs, qi-gong and tai chi classes at lunchtime are also becoming standard offerings for the enlightened workplaces. The benefits of mental wellness through meditation & mindfulness practice are becoming increasingly more known and popular worldwide.
At The Breakers, Palm Beach, Florida, a historic, 538 room, Italian Renaissance-style hotel first opened on January 16, 1896, by oil and railroad tycoon, Henry Flagler, and run to the present day by his descendants, there has long been a policy of “team satisfaction drives customer satisfaction, which leads to financial success.” Corporate Athlete, one of The Breakers’ signature executive training programs for management, is a three-day program that provides staff with the tools to manage their energy and time so as to become fully engaged in all areas of their professional and personal lives.
The Breakers has an 82% employee retention rate due to collaboration with employees, which creates a sense of belonging. The Breakers management team look at wellness as a value add…not in terms of ROI, which has brought their healthcare spend down. The company’s culture of care and wellbeing inspires team members to live a fulfilled life which in turn makes The Breakers a high-performing organization.5 With rising levels of stress worldwide, the Spa-Wellness industry is well positioned to be a driver and at the forefront of a stress-relief culture. However, without investment in self-care, training, and education, the therapists, who are the ‘touch points’ of healing, can become unwell themselves resulting in break downs, burnout and absenteeism. Without caregivers being in resourceful states themselves, their own capacities to deliver excellent quality services could be greatly compromised. So taking care of the mental and physical wellbeing of spa personnel is the essential starting point for offering this to clients. And the many wellness modalities presented in the White Paper on Mental Wellness are also backed up by scientific research on their benefits. This can be shared with guests and will increase their confidence in these approaches.
You are the Chair of the GWI Mental Wellness Initiative. In that capacity, what is your mission? Who is your target? What have you done to concretely help people improve their mental wellness?
The Mental Wellness Initiative of the Global Wellness Institute aims to understand those pathways that help people stay well and thrive mentally as well as physically. The range of mental wellness extends from the very inner aspects of individual experience through to the influence and condition of what is sometimes called the ‘social mind’ – i.e. the mental condition of the surrounding society and its effect on and/or contribution to mental wellness. The GWI’s Mental Wellness Initiative collects and shares evidence on a wide range of mental, nutritional and physical modalities that support lifelong growth of mental wellbeing and happiness, creativity and generativity, wisdom, inner peace and transcendence. We are developing video content and social media outreach to ensure that the message and strategies for mental wellness reach a wide global public.
Please introduce to us your latest project – The Ayus Wellness. What kind of experience do you want to deliver to the guests?
One of the trends in wellness identified by the Global Wellness Institute in their 2019 Wellness Trends Report is Forest Medicine. The GWI notes that: A growing number of doctors are “medicalizing nature” because of the medical evidence for its benefits: from the National Health Service in Shetland, Scotland, recently rolling out a whole “nature prescription” program, to the pioneering Washington, D.C. program DC Park RX started by Dr. Robert Zarr, to Dr. Qing Li at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, whose work on the eye-opening benefits of forest bathing have helped create 62 designated forest bathing therapy centers in Japan used by 5 million people a year. The medical evidence for doses of nature is wide-ranging, including that it helps repair DNA and reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and certain cancers. It’s powerful medicine for our minds too, with studies indicating walks in nature engage the “default mode” brain network associated with stress-reduction and a boost in cognition, creativity and short-term memory.6
Based at the beautifully-designed Mulu Marriott Resort and Spa, modeled after traditional Borneo long houses, Ayus Wellness offers immersive experiences in the Borneo rainforest at Mulu, Borneo, East Malaysia (www.ayuswellness.com). With the Ayus Wellness Experience (AWE), guests immerse themselves in the magnificent beauty of Mulu’s 60-million-year-old primeval rainforest, a UNESCO World Heritage site, while enjoying wellness journeys inspired by Borneo indigenous knowledge of Nature, nutrition and healing.
AWE journeys include immersive forest experiences including mindful forest journeys, yoga in primeval rainforest settings, deep tissue or relaxing massages using essential oils and aromatherapy derived from traditional knowledge and an optional sleep program drawing on Eastern wisdom and modern science. The Ayus Wellness cuisine draws on Borneo herbal and food traditions known for their powerful nutritional and health values. For much of this we have scientific understanding, which is shared with guests in the evening knowledge programs. And this offers ways of maintaining mental wellness and the benefits of Nature immersion on return home to their everyday lives.
The wilderness brings with it a sense of wonder, of awe at the beauty and majesty of Nature and its restorative power. Wonderment has been shown to rewire the brain, to take us out of everyday ways of seeing and thinking, and this is the beginning of deep wellness. As Socrates observed: ‘Wonder is the beginning of wisdom’.
Do you have plans for any new mental wellness projects in the near future? Will there be anything related to the China market?
Yes. Through the Mental Wellness Initiative of the Global Wellness Institute, my colleagues and I are planning global social media outreach on mental wellness, with strategies for promoting mental wellness, based on our findings in the White Paper. We are also working to develop video content around the various pathways that promote mental wellness and will share this with a global audience, including China.
Also, in Hong Kong in May 2019, the Mental Wellness Initiative partnered with Fivelements and Compare Retreats to present a panel on Mental Wellness in Hong Kong. The Mental Wellness Initiative team hopes to do more of this in other centres in China, and elsewhere in Asia, including at the Spa China Summit in Xi’an, 9-11 September 2019.
In your personal life, how do you maintain both physical and mental health? Could you give some daily tips for mental wellness improvement for busy modern people?
As mentioned, I have been practicing Transcendental Meditation (TM), for twenty minutes twice a day since the mid-1970’s. I am vegetarian, I like to walk a lot and to be in Nature, and I do yoga almost every day. Having a purpose in life matters a lot to me, and that purpose is to be a global messenger for wellness and to enjoy life while doing this.
Some tips? Well, ideally organic food and a largely vegetarian diet will help create the foundation for mental wellness, as the brain is affected by the health or sickness of the gut, via the gut-brain axis. Good sleep, some kind of meditative practice, which can include Tai Chi, Qi Gong, TM, mindfulness practice etc., to reduce stress and create inner balance; building positive relationships and minimizing damaging ones; less alcohol and no smoking; regular exercise that feels good; spending time in Nature on a regular basis; keeping happiness as a goal and pathway for life.
- White Paper on Mental Wellness: https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/GWI-MWI-WhitePaper2018.pdf
- http://www.corporatewellnessmagazine.com/others/the-breakers-palm-beach-case-study/ https://issuu.com/thebreakerspalmbeach/docs/sir_report_2016?e=24726257/42542228