08/09/2014 10:46 BST | Updated 05/11/2014 05:59 GMT

Most Mindfulness Products Miss Those That Need Them

You can't call yourself a forward thinking company these days without some reference to mindfulness in your organisational strategy. From major corporations, like Google and Apple, to small start-ups, good employers want their people to benefit from better mental health and are on the look out for the expertise, ideas and products that can help.

The consumer marketplace for wellbeing products is also thriving. There are over 8,000 books available on Amazon related to mindfulness alone and a new Smartphone app to train and track meditation habits is launched almost every week.

Despite the odd bottle of snake oil, the popularisation of these ancient Buddhist practices is no fad. Mindfulness meditation, like yoga, is a practical, clinically proven approach to improving mental health. Multiple studies have shown that mindfulness can prevent depression, stress and anxiety.

The rise of mindfulness meditation in app stores and white-collar workplaces has also been complemented by increased adoption within clinical treatment for those suffering from mental illnesses. In 2004, the UK's NICE - the rationing body for the National Health Service - ruled that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was cost effective and, from, 2007, stated that it can be prescribed for people with three or more episodes of depression.

The growing availability of evidenced-based wellbeing practices, such as mindfulness, for those that are diagnosed with a mental illness, represents positive progress. As does the appearance of these practices in environments like schools and prisons, through programmes such as MindUP and the Prison Phoenix Trust.

But the accessibility of these practices as a form of prevention via consumer products and within everyday life is currently highly exclusive and, as a result, missing the audiences that need it most.

This reflects a common curve for consumer product development in areas of self-help because the commercial market can only really function in one way: identify the segment with an existing appetite for self-help and the disposable income to feed it and churn out highly targeted products and services that deliver the highest margin. You end up with a lot of products that "make life more convenient for the already comfortable", as Jimmy Chen of Significance Labs so succinctly puts it.

Meanwhile, public services strain to intervene earlier whilst coping with a tidal wave of urgent treatment needs. There is a strong argument for more preventative action from public services, with the potential impact and savings made increasingly clear by bodies such as the UK's Early Action Task Force and the 2011 Christie Commission in Scotland. However, not only are the resources available very limited, but there are vast swathes of preventative capacity within the consumer marketplace that is well beyond their remit. This capacity is currently almost exclusively harnessed for the small market segments that download wellbeing apps, subscribe to mindfulness courses or have certain jobs with well-resourced employers.

The groups that fall well outside of this commercially motivated source of preventative intervention - the young and the poor - are those that need the benefits of these products and experiences the most.

Evidence clearly shows that living in poverty brings with it poorer mental health and adverse mental health outcomes are 2 to 2.5 times higher among those experiencing greatest social disadvantage compared to those experiencing least disadvantage. Similarly, common mental health disorders, which affect 1 in 4 of us, start before the age of just 14 in 50% of cases - and 75% before 24.

Its not a stretch to conclude that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are the most in need of learning and practicing preventative wellbeing habits, but the least likely to download the Mindspace app, read The Mindful Manifesto or take part in a workplace programme at Google.


The behaviours and habits that strengthen emotional resilience, improve wellbeing and help prevent mental illness represent critical skills that need to become normal for all, but product development driven purely by profit maximisation will continue to exclusively develop health apps and yoga mats for the middle class.

This represents a major hole. Young people and those in poverty represent a much, much harder segment to develop products for, market to and make profits from. Currently, that means that the vast majority of consumer product designers are looking the other way.

This hole needs to be filled with universally relevant and accessible products, services and experiences, which are chosen and valued by those most vulnerable to stress, anxiety and depression.

This type of mission driven product innovation, that seeks to develop products that are loved, financially sustainable and capable of delivering measurable benefits for those that will benefit the most needs considerably more support. It is challenging, but crucial and pioneers like Significance Labs, Playlab London and Futuregov are showing the way. The market has left some big holes out there, like mental health prevention, and only massive waves of mission driven innovation will start to fill them.

Nick Stanhope is CEO of We Are What We Do, a London and San Francisco based social enterprise that designs consumer products which address social problems through behaviour change. By creating products that meet consumer demand that can grow to scale as self-sustaining social ventures, We Are What We Do aims to have a measurable, long-term effect complex social issues. Products include the I'm Not a Plastic Bag, Historypin and Box Chicken