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Mindful of good medicine: Dr Craig Hassed

It’s easy to get carried away by our thoughts, particularly if they are negative ones. They start to dominate our thinking, and it becomes hard to escape them.

But for Dr Craig Hassed, the study of our thinking patterns has become a life-long passion. Dr Hassed is deputy head of the department of general practice at Victoria’s Monash University, where he specialises in what’s become known as mindfulness studies.

He conducts regular mindfulness workshops for medical undergraduates at Monash, in addition to other community groups such as schools and workplaces.

“Mindfulness is a mental discipline that involves training our attention,” said Dr Hassed. “It’s about learning to focus on the present moment. When we are depressed, we tend not to focus on the moment, and the mind tiptoes off into negative self talk, which is the root of anxiety and depression.”

The popularity of these workshops and widespread community awareness of mental health issues has lead Dr Hassed to investigate how technology and ehealth practices could extend the reach of mindfulness studies.

Mental health has risen to become a public health priority during past twelve months. The federal government’s May budget included a total of $2.2 billion allocated to mental health. GPs, however, are less than pleased with the concomitant announcement of reduced funding for mental health consultations as part of general practice.

At the same time public funding is not yet allocated to specific ehealth projects that promote mental health. For this reason private initiatives, such as those offered by Dr Hassed, have come into focus.

Dr Hassed said he became interested in mindfulness as a teenager. “It was through my own needs as a teen. I started reading about it and I could sense the benefits,’’ he said. “When I became a doctor I realised it is quite a profound way to help patients, and that it is something doctors need to learn about.”

The demand for the courses is such that Dr Hassed, in collaboration with colleague Karveh Monshat, has begun experimenting with different models to make mindfulness courses more accessible to the general population.

The first step is creating an online mindfulness course, but Dr Hassed is still unsure about how well mindfulness courses will translate in online environments.

“One of the great things about online is you have all the material there in front of you. You can review it at your leisure,” he said. “The flipside is that the human-to-human contact in these courses is what brings it alive, so we are still investigating the best way to provide the material in an online context.”

This ideas are being explored in research commissioned by the University into how online learning environments compare with face-to-face lessons. “That research is ongoing, and will take the rest of this year and part of next year,” said Dr Hassed.

One advantage of online environments already known to Dr Hassed is that student data, and their responses, are easily collated and analysed. And young people typically feel more comfortable about using the internet than participating in face-to-face courses. “It seems that young people are more open to using the online systems,” he said.

Mindfulness courses have spread beyond the medical training school at Monash into various Victoria private and public school systems. Dr Hassed is also in demand when it comes to hosting mindfulness workshops for the general public.

“It’s not just about practicing mindfulness when you are sitting in a chair by yourself,” said Dr Hassed. “It’s about applying it to your everyday life and the situations you find yourself in as you go through life.”