Large UK trial to ask if mindfulness boosts teenage mental health

Nearly 6,000 British school children are to take part in a major trial designed to assess whether mindfulness training for teenagers can improve their mental health.

Mindfulness is based on the idea of being more aware of the present by intentionally focusing on emotions, thoughts and sensations and viewing them with acceptance. Advocates say this understanding helps people to respond in ways that are more purposeful, rather than reacting on "automatic pilot".

The three-part study will include the first large randomized control trial of mindfulness training compared with teaching as usual in 76 schools.

Further parts of the study include experimental research to establish whether and how mindfulness improves mental resilience of teenagers, and an assessment of the most effective way to train teachers to deliver mindfulness classes to pupils.

Brain scientists know that teenage years are a crucially vulnerable time for mental health, particular in brain regions responsible for decision-making, emotion regulation and social understanding. More than three-quarters of all mental disorders begin before the age of 24, and half by the age of 15.

Researchers leading the study, from Britain's Oxford University, Exeter University, University College London, and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, said it is based on the theory that, just as physical training is linked with better physical health, so psychological resilience training is linked to better mental health.

"Mindfulness as a technique has become very popular," said Raliza Stoyanova of the Neuroscience and Mental Health team at the Wellcome Trust charity, which is part-funding the study. "We want to take that enthusiasm ... but delve deeper into the scientific basis for the technique."

By promoting good mental health and intervening early, the scientists hope to understand whether they can help prevent mental illness developing.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, one of the study's lead researchers and professor at UCL, said part of the trial would be using experimental tasks in the lab to 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," she said.