Case study

Harnessing compassion for mental health and wellbeing

Around one in 12 people suffer from a mental health disorder, making improving mental wellbeing a global priority. Pioneering research at the University of Derby has led to effective therapies and interventions – centred on the power of compassion.

At a time when conditions such as anxiety and depression cost the global economy $1 trillion per year, the University of Derby has responded to calls from the World Health Organisation for ‘scalable psychological therapies’ to address the challenge.

A world-renowned research team at the University has developed compassion-based interventions as effective treatments for a wide range of health disorders. Promoting mental and emotional health by encouraging people to show greater compassion towards themselves and enabling them to receive compassion from others, has led to the Derby model being used by clinicians in over 25 countries including Italy, Australia, Canada, Ireland and the USA, and in workplace settings spanning everything from education to emergency services.

Professor of Clinical Psychology and the originator of compassion-based theory, Paul Gilbert OBE, has spearheaded ground breaking approaches to address self-criticism and shame - common characteristics of mental health issues. Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) builds patients’ capacity for self-compassion as an antidote to self-criticism while a non-clinical equivalent – compassionate mind training (CMT) – is increasingly used to develop emotion-regulation skills and improve wellbeing in the general public and in staff development programmes.

Impact in clinical sectors

Working alongside other research teams, the University has tailored CFT for over 17 different patient groups experiencing conditions such as depression, self-harm, trauma, psychosis, bipolar disorder, alcohol abuse, chronic pain and eating disorders. It has become an established and preferred treatment in over 20 NHS Trusts and is now practised across 25 countries spanning every continent.

Extensive work has been undertaken by Professor Gilbert and Senior Research Fellow Dr Kirsten McEwan and others to develop scales that assess the effectiveness of CFT – 23 validated measures are now widely used by practitioners and have been translated into 15 languages. Their measure assessing fears of compassion has provided guidance for clinicians on how to address fears, blocks and resistance in patients undergoing the therapy. Dr McEwan’s research has led to the development of a compassion stimulus set, a facial expression library used by researchers to assess cognitive responses to compassion.

Working collaboratively with Professor Gilbert’s charity, The Compassionate Mind Foundation, the research team co-ordinates global training initiatives. Since 2018, some 1,400 healthcare professionals worldwide have been trained to deliver compassion-based interventions and the University has an established Postgraduate Certificate enabling students to achieve CFT practitioner status.

Impact in the workplace

Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year, with NHS staff sickness accounting for over £1.1 billion. Healthcare professionals often suffer traumatic experiences leading to burnout, high turnover and loss of productivity. A workplace mental health organisation, Wellbeing Works, has adopted the University’s compassion-based models with GP practices and NHS Trusts. At Barts Health NHS Trust in London, this led to reduced turnover of nursing staff, saving £380,000 in one year.

Wellbeing Works has applied the same approach in other sectors, including the police, fire and rescue, armed forces, law, accountancy, insurance and higher education. One client, Manchester Metropolitan University, saved £600,000 in a year through improved staff retention and lower operating costs. In Denmark, another workplace wellbeing company, Mindwork, has applied CMT with over 12,000 individuals in more than 40 organisations ranging from banking to engineering.

Impact in educational settings

As stress among teachers and pupils has become endemic – and 30% of UK teachers leave the profession within five years – the University has trialled, tested and developed a CMT professional development programme for schools. Led by Associate Professor and Reader in Emotion Science Dr Frances Maratos, the Compassion in Schools initiative has trained 580 teaching staff across the East Midlands and Portugal, leading to significant improvements in their mental health.

The approach has also been successfully applied in the curriculum, helping pupils deal with anxiety at critical times such as the transition from primary to secondary school. In Portugal, the CMT course developed by Dr Maratos, Professor Gilbert and our Portuguese partner Marcella Matos has been recognised by the Ministry of Education to support wellbeing across educational communities of teachers, students, parents and non-teaching staff.

Impact on the wider public

The University’s compassion-based interventions are increasingly reaching other areas of public life, with online resources opening up affordable solutions for wider use. The researchers collaborated with Slimming World, which introduced CMT to help its 400,000 members calm their ‘inner critic’ and avoid relapse. This included a compassion-based app that reduced drop-outs from the weight loss programmes by 10%.

The researchers also play an influential role in shaping national public policy on health and wellbeing, including contributing expertise to the cross-party Compassion in Politics steering committee and the Government’s Mindfulness Initiative steering group.

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Researchers

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Human Sciences Research Centre

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