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Alumnus Anne Speckens opened a mindfulness centre in Nijmegen

Professor of Psychiatry Anne Speckens studied medicine in Leiden and did her psychiatry training there too. She discovered mindfulness in England and later opened the Radboudumc Center for Mindfulness in Nijmegen. What does she do there and how does she look back on her time as a student?

Anne Speckens at her graduation

Autumn, turn-of-the-21st-century London. Anne Speckens had just dropped her children off at the nursery and was racing to the train station. She had recently heard about mindfulness as a cognitive behavioural therapy specialisation in her work at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. ‘With two young children, I was in the rush hour of life, as they call it. Suddenly I realised: “I’m walking along this beautiful avenue with golden autumn leaves. I can also pay attention to and enjoy this.”’

She began to learn more about mindfulness, what she defines as being present in the here and now, without preconceptions but with an open, friendly and curious mind. And she began to ask questions such as: Should I really want it all? Or are there things I can stop doing? Despite really liking England – she mentions the sense of humour and the beautiful scenery − she consciously decided to return to the Netherlands a few years later. ‘England is a class society. There aren’t such marked differences in quality between schools in one area and another here.’

In the heart of society

She lived in Leiden before going to England. She had chosen medicine, ‘because it is a subject where you are at the heart of society and can make a difference to people’s lives.’ She had over an 8.5 in her school-leaving examination, securing her place straight away. She also considered theology because meaning in life had always fascinated her. Questions such as: What kind of life do we want to live? Which values do we believe to be important?

After graduation, she was given the opportunity to do her PhD, also in Leiden. She went on to specialise in psychiatry so she could help people with mental health problems live a worthwhile and meaningful life.

Anne Speckens and her co-members of the MFLS board

Fond memories

She has ‘very fond memories’ of student life in 1980s Leiden. ‘You develop dramatically in that phase’, she says, ‘not just intellectually but socially.’ She left home, became active in the SSR-Leiden student association, a fairly small association at the time, and joined the University Council and the board of MFLS, the Medical Faculty of Leiden Students.

She has been working at Radboudmc for 19 years now, where she founded its Mindfulness Expertise Centre and gives training and conducts research on the effectiveness of mindfulness in healthcare.

Mindfulness can provide insight into why you respond in a certain way − often on automatic pilot − she explains. ‘If you can become aware of that, you can choose to do things differently.’ That means, for example, accepting that suffering is part of life and learning to live with it.

Anne Speckens at a PhD ceremony

Better quality of life

The expertise centre provides mindfulness training for people with mental disorders, such as depression and ADHD, but also for patients with diseases such as cancer, MS and Parkinson’s. Academics, doctors and nursing staff can also receive help with preventing or reducing stress and burnout.

When Speckens began using mindfulness in healthcare, this was quite new. It is now much more widely applied. Not everyone is open to ‘that woo-woo stuff’, although their numbers are decreasing. Her research shows that mindfulness helps reduce symptoms and increase quality of life.

As a mindfulness expert, you obviously cannot work 24/7. She is therefore currently studying part time at the art academy in Utrecht. ‘It’s great to do something completely different’, she explains. She makes woven artworks from beach finds such as rope and fishing lines.

Text: Thessa Lageman

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