Louise Smith: After mindfulness freed her from antidepressants – meet the woman taking it into schools

“But something really stuck, because when I left the surgery I Googled mindfulness – at that time it wasn’t really talked about. There was all this stuff about how mindfulness is better for avoiding relapse, which is what I was struggling with, and for relieving insomnia which really sold it to me.”

That was five years ago and today Mrs Smith, 42, is now free of antidepressants and taking mindfulness training to nursery and primary schools around Scotland in an effort to improve youngsters’ concentration, resilience and overall mental health.

It is a long way from where she was 18 years ago when she found herself in a “toxic relationship” and battling depression and anxiety following the birth of her eldest son.

She finally left the relationship shortly before the birth of her second son, now 15, but spent the next six years hiding her illness and becoming increasingly unwell.

“I just survived day to day, very much on automatic pilot,” says Mrs Smith. “To look at me I would have seemed very okay on the outside – I had a good job, my own house, two beautiful boys.

“I was a runner, I looked after myself, but I was really very ill. I hid it from my family, my friends, because to admit to those feelings would have felt like failure and I’m a bit of a perfectionist.

“Every night after the kids went to bed I fell apart, but every morning it was a case of putting on the mask again, getting up, getting on with it and pretending really.”

Eventually Mrs Smith sought help from her GP who prescribed antidepressants.

“I remember the first time I went on them actually feeling, after a couple of weeks, for the first time in a long time, like myself again,” she says. “The noise in my head had quietened down and I still remember the distinct moment thinking ‘oh my God, I kind of feel happy’.”

Over the next three years, as her health improved, Mrs Smith periodically tried to stop taking citalopram but became frustrated when her symptoms returned.

“I’d do exactly what they said – come off them extremely gently. But once I was off them or just before, I would relapse. It just became this vicious cycle that plagued me for many years and I would feel so disappointed in myself every single time that I had to go back on them.”

In 2013, her GP suggested trying mindfulness – essentially meditation, without the religious connotations.

After overcoming her initial anger and hostility to the idea, Mrs Smith signed up to a course in Edinburgh and began practising the breathing and relaxation techniques at home.

“I hated it to begin with. Just sitting still for 20 minutes, I used to think ‘what is this hippy-dippy nonsense? – what a waste of time’. The way I used to always deal with things was to obsessively clean or run.

“I’d say to myself ‘if I can run for 10 miles today I might sleep tonight, or I might feel less anxious’. But I was running big miles and not feeling or sleeping any better.

“At around four or five weeks I had breakthrough. My husband noticed the difference before me. My sleeping had improved, I wasn’t just turning to drink, I was less reactive.

“This time when I came off the antidepressants it was a different.”

Although she feared another relapse, Mrs Smith found that as long as she continued to use the mindfulness techniques daily she was able to keep her symptoms at bay.

“I started to realise ‘this is like medication, if I don’t use it all the time I won’t get the benefit’. It’s not a case of ‘I’m better now, I don’t need it’. Even now I still have anxious days but rather than starting to obsessively clean or run I’ll do a longer practice and I can feel my nervous system calming down and my mind settling.”

Scientific evidence that mindfulness can help ‘rewire’ the brain is growing. At Harvard University, a five-year study – due to conclude in 2019 – has used brain scans to show how depressed patients undergoing mindfulness-based cognitive behavioural therapy (MBCT) experience lasting changes in the activity of their amygdala, the part of the brain which processes emotion.

And in 2016, an Oxford University of 424 patients with a history of depression – the largest analysis to date – found that (MBCT) was equally as effective at preventing an episode as commonly prescribed anti-depressant drugs.

Mrs Smith, who is now married and also has a four-year-old daughter, has since founded Do-BeMindful, an initiative which trains teachers in mindfulness techniques which they can then pass on to pupils.

The programme has launched in 165 nursery and primary schools in Scotland to date, and is expected to extend into secondary schools next year.

“I’m so passionate about helping kids to develop these skills,” says Mrs Smith. “I wish I had had them earlier, because I genuinely think that a lot of the stuff that’s gone on wouldn’t have happened.”

LOUISE Smith had been trying to come off antidepressants for years, without success, when her GP asked if she had considered trying mindfulness training.

“I remember feeling enraged,” says Mrs Smith, a businesswoman and mother-of-three from Burntisland in Fife. “He said ‘you pay attention to your breath and thoughts’. I remember thinking ‘you p***k, how dare you?’.