02/09/2013 09:06 BST | Updated 30/10/2013 05:12 GMT

Mental Health and Meditation in the House of Commons

Yesterday renowned health journal 'The Lancet' revealed that depressive disorders were the leading cause of all non-fatal illnesses in the world in 2010.

It's news only to the extent that these are the latest official figures.

Earlier this year, one of the more unusual speeches in the House of Commons began by outlining the disturbing portrait of mental health in the UK: in the past ten years, the number of prescriptions for antidepressants has risen five-fold, from nine million to 46 million.

Yet this was not a report from the Ministry of Health. It was an intervention by a politician, about the value of mindfulness. He was talking passionately about the ancient system of meditation - dating back more than 2,000 years, to well before the time of the Buddha - in preventing and dealing with the breakdown of society.

Given the poor reputation politicians in many countries have for being bombastic, untruthful and corrupt, it may seem oxymoronic to imagine a politician meditating, let alone advocating the ancient practice of mindfulness.

Yet that's what has happened this year, in two startling examples on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the Commons debate, opened by Welsh MP Chris Ruane, from the Vale of Clwyd; Chris pointed out that there are multiple social and economic causes for the epidemic of depression, leading to the rising use of antidepressants.

"In 2004, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence said that mindfulness was a better way to treat repeat-episode depression. Mindfulness is not just for those who suffer with mental health issues, or who work in high stress occupations," he told MPs. "Its applications go far beyond that. It is being used in education. In primary schools in my constituency, it is used to train five-year-olds to be more mindful, to live in the present moment and to concentrate."

He is not the only politician to be raising the issue.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Congressman Tom Ryan has intrigued political commentators with his book, A Mindful Nation. He says that practicing mindfulness meditation has made him more relaxed, focused and compassionate. Now he is enlisting teachers, doctors, business leaders, scientists and military personnel to bring mindfulness into the mainstream.

Ryan, a Roman Catholic, makes the point that you don't have to be a Buddhist to meditate: "Learning from different traditions is part of public service. The connections between our religious traditions tie us together."

He is much in demand as a speaker, most recently at the increasingly popular 'Wisdom 2.0' conferences that highlight the connections between wisdom traditions and the urgent needs of our world in crisis.

Perhaps the best-known and most widely respected exemplar of meditation in politics was United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swede who led the world body from 1953 to 1961.

Not only did he embrace the practice himself, but he was responsible for creating the Meditation Room in the United Nations General Assembly Building. He said the UN, as a force committed to the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense.

In the centre of the silent room, lit with a single shaft of light, is a great slab of raw iron ore.

"The material of the stone leads our thoughts to the necessity for choice between destruction and construction, between war and peace," said Hammarskjöld. "Of iron man has forged his swords; of iron he has made ploughshares. Of iron he has constructed tanks, but of iron he has likewise built homes for man. The block of iron ore is part of the wealth we have inherited on this earth of ours. How are we to use it?"

It's exactly this question that's inspired the forthcoming Awake in the World festival taking place later this month at the University of London. I'm thrilled that Chris Ruane MP will be joining us there for a panel discussion on how developing mind-body connections can help build a better society.