Mindfulness is paying deliberate attention to the present moment. During mindfulness practice, the mind will inevitably wander, perhaps to something that happened earlier in the day or to something that you might need to do tomorrow. The key is to accept these thoughts without judgement, as present moment experiences, before gently returning the attention back to the now. Training mindfulness is currently very popular, with huge claims made about its potential benefits. For example, some evidence suggests that if we are better able to focus on the present then we are less likely to ruminate on the past or worry about the future. The ability to do this is important for good mental health.
Poor mental health, on the other hand, can have catastrophic consequences for a sufferer’s education, employment, physical health, and personal relationships – and has an annual cost in England alone in excess of £100 billion. More than a decade ago a survey reported that 50 per cent of mental health problems are established by the age of 14. The likelihood is that this figure is now even higher, with adolescents under considerable stress due to issues including the regularity of school assessments and the pressures of trying to appear ‘perfect’ on social media. Indeed, the Children’s Society reports that 10 per cent of young people have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem, but 70 per cent of these do not receive the appropriate intervention at an early enough age.
So could training young people in mindfulness help improve their mental health? Numerous studies would suggest that this might be the case, though too often these studies are modest in size and lack methodological rigour. Currently then, it seems that the enthusiasm for mindfulness training may be ahead of the actual research evidence.
MYRIAD, which stands for My Resilience in Adolescence, is a Wellcome Trust-funded 7-year research project carried out across the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and University College London. MYRIAD consists of a suite of studies aiming to establish whether mindfulness training is useful in improving resilience and mental health, how it works, and how best to deliver it in schools in a cost-effective way. Central to the MYRIAD project is a large-scale cluster, randomised controlled trial of almost 6,000 adolescents aged 11–14 years. These young people will be randomised to either mindfulness training or teaching as usual (PHSE lessons) and assessed before and after training on measures including well-being and risk of depression. To test the maintenance of any effects, the adolescents will be followed up over a number of years to discover if practising mindfulness has helped protect against mental illness. The MYRIAD project will provide the most definitive evidence to date of the effectiveness and potential long-term benefits of mindfulness training.
The concept of mindfulness may seem relatively simple, but sustained practice of it is challenging. This is likely to be particularly true for adolescents. Training mindfulness takes time and effort, so the participants in the MYRIAD project will attend 10 weekly, hour-long classes accompanied by exercises to do at home.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about mindfulness training is that it has the potential to be a universal intervention that could benefit anyone, from those at high risk of mental illness to those that are thriving but might be susceptible to some stress and anxiety. The MYRIAD project will examine whether benefits are shared by young people who have varying levels of mental well-being at the start of the intervention.
Adolescence can be a stressful and challenging period of life. If mindfulness training proves to be helpful for this age group, it will offer a relatively low-cost way of potentially improving the mental health and well-being of everyone that practises it.
Dr Darren Dunning is a researcher at the Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge. His research has focussed on developing and evaluating interventions to help remediate working memory impairments in various developmental groups, including those with working memory difficulties, dyslexia, ADHD, and acquired brain injury. His current interests include investigating the association between cognition and emotion and how mindfulness-based training affects both. You can connect with him on Twitter @darrenldunning