The Healthy Minds Program was developed by award-winning clinical psychologist Dr. Tom Nehmy, based in Adelaide, South Australia.
The program's creation was a 4-year undertaking and a deeply personal journey for Tom.
After working as a clinical psychologist for years in government, corporate, and private practice environments he became concerned at the number of clients (children and adults) who exhibited similar signs of unhelpful thinking and behaviour that could have been prevented. It didn't seem to matter what specific disorder the clients had: there were similarities in the way they thought and responded to situations that were eerily similar, and ultimately unhelpful.
"Many of these clients presented in distress, seeking help from me in remediating their depression, anxiety, or some other problem. I couldn't help wondering: what if these people had the skills and knowledge that would help resolve their distress before their problem arose?" he said.
This question fermented into a passion for preventive psychology - and the PhD research project that gave rise to the Healthy Minds program. Tom's PhD project was conducted through the School of Psychology at Flinders University in South Australia, under the supervision of Professor Tracey Wade.
Tom's first task was to review the scientific literature. After spending six months reviewing what had been done around the world to prevent anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, he found that the majority of programs were not effective, and there was no recommended 'best practice' in preventing these problems. In fact, the majority of programs failed, and some even made people worse.
"Many of the school programs that were listed as prevention programs were actually early intervention treatments which reduced the symptoms adolescents were already experiencing. Early intervention is very important of course, but I wanted to know if we could keep healthy adolescents healthy, and to stop the future onset of psychological problems that arise over time, when people are exposed to the kinds of stressors that are inevitable in life. I wanted to stop the psychological difficulties from arising in the first place."
The concept that most fascinated Tom is that of general 'psychological immunization'. If teaching certain 'healthy' skills seemed to help people in therapy no matter what their type of psychological distress – would it be possible to immunize people against developing them in the first place?
By identifying a set of unhelpful psychological processes (best described as 'unhelpful perfectionism') he realised we could target psychological characteristics that put people at risk for all sorts of psychological problems.
"We know that unhelpful perfectionism is a risk factor for depression and anxiety and bulimia and obsessive compulsive disorder. The clear indication is that this is a risk factor across many forms of psychological impairment. So I then set about creating a single program that aimed to reduce this perfectionism and therefore prevent depression, anxiety, and eating disorders and to promote overall emotional wellness and resilience – without targeting the specific symptoms of any one disorder."
It was presented as an 8-lesson classroom-based series for thinking skills to develop a healthy mind: and thus the Healthy Minds program was born. It has since been adapted and refined for a corporate environment, as a comprehensive 'in-house' employee wellness program.
"In creating the program, we drew from all aspects of the research literature in psychology – from cognitive-behavioural theory, positive psychology, therapeutic writing, ACT, and more. I knew that these principles combined would be effective to some degree, and the data from our controlled evaluation trial revealed that they were indeed helpful."
A scientific approach
Over the course of his PhD candidature, Tom studied what had been done in schools all around the world to promote mental health in adolescents. What he found was that there was no 'gold standard' approach, and the majority of interventions failed.
After developing his own 8-lesson approach based on cutting-edge science, he trialled the Healthy Minds program in four metropolitan Adelaide schools with more than 1000 students participating.
A Sense of Purpose
"I have a deep and abiding sense of purpose in this work. For so long we have been so preoccupied with remediating problems that we have not turned our attention to prevention nearly enough. We brush our teeth to stop decay, we bend our knees to lift heavy objects and spare our back, we eat a balanced diet to have a healthy body – but what do we do to establish and maintain excellent mental health? I'm excited that we are now starting to build an answer to that question."
Even just five or ten years ago, having the theoretical and research knowledge to create these results would not have been possible.
Preventive psychology is an idea whose time has come.
Tom hopes these results will start a 'prevention revolution' in schools and workplaces so that people everywhere have the opportunity to realise their full potential – unencumbered by depression, chronic worry or body image problems.
"Life is never going to be perfect, and we don't want it to be – a perfect life would lack challenge, passion, richness and meaning. But experiencing life without psychological disorders means that one that can truly appreciate all the ups and the downs, without getting stuck. And the opposite of being 'stuck' is being free to be your best."