Mindfulness on trial

Ella Rhodes reports on a new large-scale study.

The potential benefits of mindfulness have barely left the scientific or public consciousness in recent years. Now, in the first large randomised control trial of mindfulness, a Wellcome Trust study will aim to look into its effect on the mental health of thousands of teenagers.

Teams from the University of Oxford, University College London and the Cambridge MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in collaboration with the University of Exeter will spend the next seven years looking into the effects of mindfulness training compared with teaching as normal. Seventy-six schools, involving nearly 6000 students aged 11 to 14, are due to participate. The three-part, £6.4 million study, will also include experimental research to assess whether mindfulness improves the mental resilience of teenagers, and an evaluation of the most effective way to train teachers to deliver mindfulness classes to students. The trial will involve training students in over 10 lessons within a school term. The work is scheduled to start in 2016 and will run for five years, including a follow-up period of two years for each student.

The teenage years present a multitude of challenges and change to young people and can be a very vulnerable time for the onset of mental illness; more than 75 per cent of mental disorders begin before the age of 24 and half by the age of 15 (see the full transcript of our recent session on the topic at Latitude Festival). The researchers will also look into secondary outcomes of mindfulness training including peer relationships, anxiety, student attainment and teacher wellbeing.

In the second, lab-based, part of the study researchers from UCL and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit are testing exactly how mindfulness affects wellbeing and whether mindfulness training is more beneficial at some stages of adolescence than others.

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (UCL), whose work has looked extensively at the teenage brain, said it was becoming clear that the early teenage years were crucial for development of the brain. She added: ‘Alongside the trial in schools, we are trying to find out experimentally whether mindfulness improves cognitive and emotional resilience in young people. Using experimental tasks in the lab, we will study whether mindfulness affects how young people think and feel and make decisions under stressful or emotional conditions. We are trying to establish whether mindfulness training, compared with a control intervention, has different effects at different stages of development, and therefore if there is a “best” time for teenagers to be trained in the technique.’

In the third strand of the study, researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Exeter are assessing how best to train teachers to deliver mindfulness to their students. The study involves 200 teachers and is evaluating different training methods (intensive mindfulness short course versus guided self-help mindfulness training and web-learning) and how easily and cost effectively teacher training can be scaled up. 

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How to train teachers?