An estimated 280 million people globally experience depression, with more than 75 percent of people in low- and middle-income countries receiving no treatment at all. What role can mindfulness play in cultivating mental health and wellness? And how can researchers help ensure equitable access to mindfulness-based approaches? Clinical psychological scientist Sona Dimidjian has spent over two decades looking for answers.

“Sona is a pioneering thinker, who has contributed greatly to the investigation of mindfulness-based approaches to treating depression, with an unwavering focus on underserved populations,” said Mind & Life President Susan Bauer-Wu in announcing Sona as the 2022 recipient of the Catherine Kerr Award for Courageous and Compassionate Scholarship. “Sona lives the qualities that Cathy brought to her work, including bold innovation, imagination, courage, authenticity, and heartfulness.”

The award was established in 2016 to honor the life and legacy of Catherine Kerr, a neuroscientist, whose research focused on the effects of attention practices such as Tai Chi and mindfulness on the mind and body. Cathy served as Director of Translational Neuroscience in the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University until her untimely death in November 2016. Past awardees include Peter Wayne (2020), Patricia Jennings (2018), and Norman Farb (2018).

Sona is Director of the Renée Crown Wellness Institute, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, and a Mind & Life board member. Her research focuses on cultivating mental health and wellness among children and families by engaging people in learning to care for themselves and their communities. “Many aspects of our world need to change to ensure long-term and widespread mental health and wellness,” wrote Sona in a recent essay published on Mind & Life’s Insights website. “We need to make resources easy to access when people need help.”

Sona’s interest in contemplative practice began in high school; yet it wasn’t until she attended graduate school at the University of Washington that her academic focus on treating depression and interest in mindfulness started to merge. Her 20-year journey to study the effects of mindfulness on mental health has coincided with exponential growth in the clinical science of mindfulness for addressing issues like depression, anxiety, and substance use.

At the 2018 Mind & Life Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Sona presents her research on how mindfulness training can support the mental health of pregnant and new mothers who have experienced depression. Photo courtesy of the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Milestones in Sona’s career include the adaptation of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to address the needs of pregnant women; the development of Mindful Mood Balance (MMB), a digital version of MBCT aimed at increasing access to mindfulness-based approaches to treating depression; and a targeted digital intervention, MMB for Moms, to support the mental health of perinatal women. Sona and her team also developed the mind. body. voice. project, a peer-to-peer initiative designed to help young women develop a more critical awareness of biases around appearance, connect to and listen to their bodies through the use of contemplative practices, and take action in their communities.

Ensuring that underserved communities can help shape research and benefit from mindfulness-based approaches to mental health has been a core theme in Sona’s work and advocacy efforts. “Sona’s scientific creativity and grit have allowed for a significant expansion in the reach of mindfulness-based therapies for new populations–with an eye toward increasing ease of access,” said neuroscientist Amishi Jha, a nominator for the Award.

In 2020, Sona was chosen by Mindful as one of the 12 most powerful women in mindfulness, with the magazine highlighting her passion for connecting the practice of mindfulness to the broader community. “These times call upon us to look inward with self-awareness and to really reconnect to our core intention,” she is quoted as saying. “And to ask yourself how you can be a benefit to the people around you and your community—to the world at large?”

Listen to Sona’s interview on Bringing Relationship into Research on the Mind & Life podcast.

Read Sona’s essay, Mindfulness & Mental Health, on Mind & Life’s Insights website. 

Watch Sona’s keynote lecture, To Be of Benefit: The Promise of Contemplative Research and Practice, at Mind & Life’s International Symposium for Contemplative Research in 2018.