Blog #50 – Mindfulness
In our most recent sequence of posts, we began by highlighting the desirability of cultivating a sense of being present in the moment, as opposed to falling prey to the all-too human tendency to ruminate on the past and obsess over the future at the expense of living in the here and now.
A logical extension of this core topic was to devote specific attention to mindfulness, a practice with its roots in Buddhism, but promoted and popularised in the Western world by, among others, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who offered a definition that deliberately emphasised the idea of being present in the now, describing mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”.
Last time, we began to look at research evidence pointing to the potential link between practicing mindfulness and good psychological functioning. In recent years, there has been an explosion in such research, pointing to possible benefits among a number of different population groups and demographics.
One such group has been adolescents. Worrying trends have been reported in recent years with regard to young people and their mental health, with official statistics from organisations such as the Cork-based National Suicide Research Foundation highlighting relatively high prevalence of self-harming and suicidal ideation among teenagers. While this is deeply troubling in its own right, a related concern is that we also know young people who experience serious mental health issues in adolescence are more likely to go on to experience further problems as adults. In contrast, research findings also tell us that if young people can navigate the challenging years of adolescence without enduring such problems, then they are far less likely to do so as adults.
Arising from this, in recent years, the idea of prevention being more effective – and, from the perspective of the health system, economical – than treatment has gained increasing support. More specifically, with regard to mental health, it makes more sense to seek to prevent problems manifesting in the first instance, rather than waiting for them to occur and then looking to treat them, knowing as we do that one of the best predictors of future mental health problems is to have experienced similar issues in the past.
It has been partly with this in mind that a variety of researchers, in this country and elsewhere, have undertaken studies on the effectiveness of mindfulness among young people in schools and community settings, with some encouraging results reported.
In 2013, Katherine Weare conducted a literature review looking at the state of evidence for the potential benefits of teaching mindfulness to young people. In this paper, which was published in Journal of Children’s Services, she examined approximately 20 studies which she labelled as significant and good, with the criteria for those descriptors being the number of participants and publication in peer reviewed journals. She noted that the United States leads the way, both in terms of the development of universal mindfulness programmes and also in attempts to rigorously evaluate those programmes. She added that the emphasis on mindfulness in that country had led to the development of structured programmes such as Inner Kids and Hawn Foundation’s Mindfulness Education/MindUp, with both of these having also been used outside the United States. Among the studies she examined were a randomised controlled trial of the InnerKids intervention with seven- to nine-year-olds, which reported parent and teacher-rated improvements in executive function, and a paper on the effectiveness of the Mindfulness Education/MindUp programme, which showed improvements in behaviour, attention, and focus among a group of nine- to 13-year-olds. Weare also highlighted the Learning to BREATHE curriculum, informed by MBSR and targeted at teenagers, and the UK-based .b curriculum, developed by the Mindfulness in Schools Project. The title of the programme – pronounced as dot-be – stands for ‘Stop, Breathe, and Be’, with these words taken to indicate the act of mindfulness itself. Weare highlighted a 2010 .b trial study undertaken by Felicia Huppert and Daniel Johnson with 173 males in two English schools (aged 14-15) across 11 classes. The intervention was delivered over four weeks, with one session of basic mindfulness training held per week. They reported statistically significant boosts to well-being among students who regularly did 10 minutes of home practice a day.
Willem Kuyken was the lead author of a 2013 feasibility study conducted with a view towards assessing the suitability and efficacy of a schools-based universal mindfulness intervention – the Mindfulness in Schools Programme (MiSP) – to boost mental health and well-being among young people. A total of 522 participants, aged 12-16, recruited from multiple schools in England, took part in the study. The authors justified targeting this age group on the basis that “the 12-16 range represents a key developmental window for self-regulation and is a period when young people need to negotiate many academic and social stressors for the first time”. This statement underscores points made above on the mental health challenges associated with this period in life.
The intervention sessions were incorporated into the weekly timetable by participating schools. The nine-week programme seeks to impart some of the key elements of mindfulness – learning to direct attention to experiences in the moment, while cultivating open-minded curiosity and acceptance. The stated intention is that by encouraging young people to engage with mindfulness and work with mental states, everyday life, and stressors, a process is facilitated which lends itself to improved well-being and mental health. Well-being was assessed at each of the data collection points using the 14-item Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale (WEMWBS), while questionnaires were also used to measure perceived stress and depressive symptoms. Mindfulness practice was assessed by asking five questions about sustained use during the three months following completion of the programme. When analysing the data gathered, after adjusting for sex, age, and ethnicity, the authors found strong evidence of lower depression scores amongst participants who received the mindfulness programme. At the three-month follow-up, they found that, when compared with the control group, mindfulness participants exhibited increased well-being and lower depressive symptoms scores.
Next time, we will continue to look at the potential of mindfulness as it relates to well-being.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.