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 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.
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?
He realised it was possible to target psychological characteristics that put people at risk for all sorts of psychological problems.
"So I then set about creating a single program that aimed to 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 initially 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 Healthy Minds 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 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."
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."