Research in Focus

Researchers from the University of Derby have led two pioneering projects on compassion as a way of effectively treating mental health.

Since 1996, the University has been working with Professor Paul Gilbert, Professor of Clinical Psychology, on ways to address mental health problems. Part of this was the development of Compassion Focused Therapy, which is now one of the fastest growing therapies in the UK. Today, the research group has grown significantly, and the team now includes 15 staff and seven PhD students, guided by Professor Gilbert, Kirsten McEwan, Wendy Wood and Dr Frances Maratos.

Caring and compassionate behaviour are recognised by the World Health Organization as one of the most important human motives. In 2006, Professor Gilbert founded the Compassionate Mind Foundation with a network of more than 9,400 clinicians. This international charity helps promote an informed approach to compassion which now forms the basis of psychotherapy (Compassion Focused Therapy) and Compassionate Mind Training.

Since starting his research, Professor Gilbert has trained more than 1,400 clinicians, delivered 18 UK workshops and a further 58 workshops across 15 other countries, enabling clinicians to deliver compassion-based interventions and improve patient mental health.

The benefits of compassion therapy

The interventions focus on helping people understand what compassion is - and is not - and how to help people become sensitive to suffering without turning away or trying to avoid it. It also involves developing wisdom to know ‘what to do’. Sometimes when we want to be helpful, we can rush in without knowing what is going to be helpful. So, compassion focused interventions focus on what is helpful in terms of how to use our body to create a compassionate mind, how to use visualisations and imagery to create compassion models for action, and how to use compassionate ways of thinking to cope with difficult emotions and situations.

Professor Gilbert says: “We have been working with international colleagues to understand the nature of compassion, including the impact it has on our brains and bodies.

“The coronavirus pandemic has shown that compassion can be incredibly courageous and it's not just about being ‘kind’ or having a calm mind. Consider, for example, the bravery of medical staff on Covid-19 wards. Our research shows clearly that compassion is all about motivation and intent, and this view of compassion is now being taken up in a number of different groups who are exploring the value of compassion today.” 

Indeed, Compassion Focused Therapy is now adopted all over the world and evaluation studies have shown significant improvements in patients with depression, anxiety, self-criticism, shame and self-compassion. This evaluation then provided the evidence-base for Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT), which is now used across NHS services.

In Birmingham, CFT has been used by the NHS to successfully treat over 8,000 patients, while in the Coventry and Warwick NHS Foundation Trust it has been used to successfully treat more than 3,000 eating disorder patients.

Portrait picture of Paul Gilbert

The coronavirus pandemic has shown that compassion can be incredibly courageous and it's not just about being ‘kind’ or having a calm mind. Consider, for example, the bravery of medical staff on Covid-19 wards.

Professor Paul Gilbert
Professor of Clinical Psychology

Compassionate Mind Training within the education sector

Additionally, Dr Maratos and colleagues have been involved in the development of Compassionate Mind Training into professional development curriculums spanning education and commercial sectors.

Dr Maratos, Associate Professor and Reader in Emotion Science at the University, says her research is centred on understanding psychological, neurological, cognitive and physiological correlates of emotional wellbeing, with a specific focus on understanding threat-processing and the use of compassion for emotion-regulation.

She has worked with some of the world's leads in understanding anxiety and how one can apply this knowledge to improve general wellbeing, improve pain coping, increase understanding of disordered eating and of childhood behaviours. In recent years, Dr Maratos has also become a key individual within the compassion in schools movement, helping initiate and progress associated international research programmes, and leading on the UK arm of this research.

Talking about her research, Dr Maratos says: “Following on from our staff Compassionate Mind Training curriculum, our compassion in schools research is still going strong, and the school we piloted the pupil initiative with in 2019 were so pleased with how it went that this year we have progressed our full randomised control trial with them. While it is still early days and data analyses is just beginning, initial feedback shows that those Year 7 pupils who took part would overwhelmingly recommend the PSHE curriculum for all pupils transitioning to secondary school.”

Dr Maratos and her colleagues have trialled, tested and developed a six-module Compassion Mind Training continuing professional development (CPD) course bespoke to the needs of those working in education.

Alongside this work, which was conducted in collaboration with Professor Gilbert, they applied Compassionate Mind Training across UK and Portuguese schools with over 700 educators improving mental health.

After the development of this research, Dr Maratos was invited to provide guidance on the Mindfulness Initiative Education Policy for the UK government. Additionally, in a stakeholder evening organised by Dr Maratos that attracted 80+ educators, it was found that more than 70% of attendees would apply the practices learned from the day to help staff and pupils in their school.

Find out more about our research on compassion Visit Compassionate Mind Training for Schools website