Professor Willem Kuyken at Cumberland Lodge's Mental Health and Well-being: Contested Boundaries Conference

Published Date: 
Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Can teaching mindfulness to high school students prevent mental health problems from arising?  This was the question posed by Willem Kuyken, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Oxford and joint principal investigator on the MYRIAD project that investigates the impact of mindfulness training with adolescents. 

Kuyken began his presentation by discussing the importance of self-control in producing good health and financial outcomes.  He cited a study that took place in Dunedin, New Zealand, where 1000 participants were recruited at birth and followed up into their 40s.  The study found that self-control (as measured by the marshmallow experiment and reports from parents and teachers) predicted the health, substance abuse problems, wealth, credit ratings, criminality, and parenting skills of the participants. 

Importantly, the study found that self-control is not an absolute variable.  In some cases, the levels of self-control of participants improved as the study went along, and those improvements similarly predicted health, social and financial outcomes. 

Kuyken observed that the difficulty in sustaining attention in the face of distracting thoughts and impulses is fundamental to many different outcomes.  Mindfulness – while not a panacea to every health problem – is designed to enhance that ability and improve mental control.  Additionally, studies with adults suggest that mindfulness can be an effective treatment for depression.    

The idea of teaching mindfulness to school children was sparked by the initiative of two teachers who saw a presentation in 2008 by his collaborator, Professor Felicia Huppert, and tried to implement some of her ideas in their own classrooms.  The teachers developed a curriculum that could be used in others schools, and instructed other teachers in how to implement it.  While this initiative produced some promising results, the small size of the sample made it impossible to draw firm conclusions. 

The promising results from this preliminary study – and the fact that adolescence represents a key developmental window when many psychiatric disorders have their first onset – mean that the impact of mindfulness in schools should be scientifically tested.  This is what Kuyken and his research team propose to do.  The MYRIAD project is funded by the Wellcome trust to test a key hypothesis: mindfulness training in adolescence has the potential to shift the population away from psychological problems by addressing key processes of mental regulation that differ across the spectrum from risk to resilience. 

Kuyken and his team will overcome the problems of sample size by recruiting 76 schools across the UK, and have hundreds of students aged 11 to 14 participate their study.  The project will design a mindfulness curriculum that is standardised and acceptable for mainstream school settings, and will train teachers in mindfulness.  The project will run for six years, and will follow up with the participants in their 20s and 30s to see if the outcomes that Kuyken and his team predict will play out. 

Kuyken ended his presentation by quoting from the psychologist William James, who in 1890 wrote, ‘the faculty of voluntarily bring back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character, and will...An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence’.  Kuyken acknowledged that while the data support the first part of James contention, the role of education in bringing back a wandering attention is less clear, and will form the subject of his team’s study over the next six years.