Mindfulness can improve young people’s mental health, Derby research shows

18 November 2018

A new study by the University of Derby has shown that mindfulness training can significantly improve mental health in adolescents and young adults.

Between 10-20% of adolescents and young adults worldwide experience a mental health problem within any given 12-month period, with anxiety and mood disorders the most common issue, according to a 2011 study. The average age of onset for mental illness is 12-24 years, with the World Health Organization estimating that 50% of all mental illnesses start by the age of 14.  

Research conducted by Dr William Van Gordon, Lecturer in Psychology at the University, showed that a mindfulness intervention known as Meditation Awareness Training led to an improvement of 71% for depression, anxiety and stress, 31% for negative emotions, and 21% for levels of mindfulness among undergraduate and postgraduate students.

The Meditation Awareness Training intervention was compared against a control group, and students who received the mindfulness training attended eight weekly group sessions. These sessions included interactive seminars focusing on mindfulness and contemplative psychology, group mindfulness exercises, and guided meditations on mindfulness. The pilot group of students were supported to practice mindfulness in their free time and they also received several one-to-one support sessions with the programme facilitator.

Meditation Awareness Training belongs to what have been called the second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions, which teach mindfulness in conjunction with ancient contemplative techniques intended to reduce an individual’s level of egocentricity and attachment to themselves.

The research supports the growing body of evidence demonstrating that mindfulness training delivered to adolescents or university students can lead to reductions in stress, hostility and thought rumination (repeatedly replaying the same thoughts), as well as improvements in emotional wellbeing, optimism, and social competent behaviours.

It can also lead to improvements in young people's learning performance and working memory capacity.

According to the research, schools and universities are considered to be appropriate settings for mindfulness training because the technique can easily be integrated into the teaching curriculum, or offered as part of an establishment’s student support and wellbeing provision.

Dr Van Gordon said: “Given the scale of the problem, there is growing awareness of the need for a public health response that builds resilience among adolescents and young adults, to prevent mental health problems from arising. Previous studies have shown that mindfulness is a suitable approach for building resilience in both school and university students. 

“Mindfulness is a form of meditation that works by creating ‘mental breathing space’, so adolescents and young adults can not only start to observe their thoughts and feelings, but can learn to remain unattached to them by relating to them as passing phenomena. Mindfulness helps young people remain aware of present moment experiences. This is important because life can only be experienced in the here and now.

“Increased awareness and perceptual distance from thoughts, feelings and sensory processes fosters a greater capacity to regulate emotions during the developmentally demanding periods of adolescence and early adulthood. Learning to apply mindfulness at this time can promote healthy character and personality formation, as well as cultivate resilience and coping skills that continue to be useful later in life.”

Using mindfulness in this manner is consistent with Dr Van Gordon’s new theory of ontological addiction, which asserts that a given problematic behaviour or mental health symptom invariably arises due to unmet psychological needs, as well as more systemic maladaptive beliefs concerning an individual’s perception of themselves.

Dr Van Gordon added: “The focus should be on supporting adolescents and young adults so that they can apply mindfulness during all aspects of their life. This includes situations where it’s easier for young people to be drawn further away from the present moment, such as using social media for excessive amounts of time.

“Another challenge will be the need to ensure that mindfulness teachers are able to impart to students an experiential understanding of this ancient contemplative technique. Otherwise, it could end up that students receive only a superficial version of mindfulness – sometimes referred to as McMindfulness – which could have negative consequences.”

Download Dr Van Gordon’s full study.

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