A major study is assessing whether training in mindfulness training – paying more attention to the present moment, to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can improve teenagers’ mental health.
The three-part Wellcome Trust study includes the first large randomised control trial of mindfulness training compared with ‘teaching as usual’ in seventy-six schools, which will involve nearly six thousand students aged eleven to fourteen.
Other parts of the study are a programme of experimental research to establish whether and how 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 £6.4 million research programme is being carried out by teams at the University of Oxford, UCL (University College London) and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, in collaboration with the University of Exeter, over seven years.
Teenage years are a vulnerable time in terms of onset of mental illness, with over 75% of mental disorders beginning before the age of twenty-four and half by the age of fifteen. This programme of research is based on the theory that, just as physical training is associated with improved physical health, psychological resilience training is associated with better mental health outcomes.
By promoting good mental health and intervening early, i.e. in crucial teenage years, researchers are seeking to understand whether they can build young people’s resilience and help to prevent mental illness from developing. Mindfulness training is a very popular technique that has been found to be very effective in preventing depression and promoting mental health in adults.
This programme of research seeks to answer whether mindfulness reduces the incidence of depression and associated mental disorders in teenagers by improving their ability to employ problem-solving skills in the face of emotional distress, intrusive thoughts or behavioural impulses. This ability is known by researchers as ‘executive control’.
Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a principal investigator from UCL, said:
It is becoming clear to neuroscientists that the early teenage years are a crucial time for brain development, particularly in brain regions responsible for decision-making, emotion regulation and social understanding. Alongside the trial in schools, we are trying to find out experimentally whether mindfulness improves cognitive and emotional resilience in young people aged 11 to 16. 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.