by Robert Booth
Stressed out teachers, prison officers and nurses should be trained in ancient techniques of mindfulness meditation, a cross-party group of MPs and peers said on Wednesday.
An eight-month inquiry by the all party group on mindfulness found frontline public servants could be less likely to fall ill with stress, or quit altogether, if they engage in the increasingly popular meditation practice which involves increasing awareness of the present moment to help control anxiety and depression.
A rash of small pilot studies about mindfulness meditation’s potential impact in the public sector is already underway. One hundred frontline health workers in Surrey were given mindfulness training last year and showed a fall in sickness absence, according to the Department of Health. Several prisons are running pilots to see how the practice can help convicted criminals avoid reoffending while 300 teachers in a network of academy schools in the north west have also been trained.
“It could be rolled out to prison staff, GPs and in key professions where there is big burn out,” said Chris Ruane MP, co-chair of the group at the launch of its interim report on Wednesday. “If we prove conclusively that mindfulness can stabilize those individuals it would be a great benefit to society.”
“Absenteeism costs the public sector a lot and giving people mindfulness training could save money in the short and long term,” added Tracey Crouch MP, also co-chair. She added that interest in the practice is growing in Westminster and that she knew of two cabinet ministers who use mindfulness techniques. Sixty MPs and 55 peers have also had training. Lord O’Donnell, the former cabinet secretary, attended the launch and said mindfulness can “play a huge role” in prevention of poor mental health. However, he called for more data to back up the claims.
The report represents the most significant political pressure yet to bring mindfulness into the mainstream and comes amid a boom in public interest in the practice, rooted in a 2,400-year-old Buddhist tradition.
More than 1,000 mindfulness courses are being offered in the UK. Headspace, a meditation software for smart phones, has registered more than half a million users, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is even growing in popularity in parliament.
But there is also growing concern that there are too few qualified teachers to meet burgeoning demand, and that inexperienced teachers could struggle to cope with potentially upsetting thoughts thrown up for people suffering from mental health problems.
The report voiced “concerns about the variability of the quality of the teaching” and said registration of teachers is only embryonic, leaving people struggling to assess their credentials. It also warned the effectiveness of hundreds of thousands of courses delivered online and through books has not been proven.
The group also called on the government to “substantially widen” the “woefully inadequate” availability of MBCT on the NHS for adults with a history of depression on the basis that it “significantly reduces risk of relapse”. It also demanded a major trial into using mindfulness to tackle the “growing mental health crisis amongst the under-18 age group”. An Oxford University study has found MBCT can reduce relapses into depression by 44%.
A network of seven academy schools in Manchester and Blackpool is halfway through a roll out of mindfulness training to every pupil and more than 3,000 pupils and 300 staff have been trained so far.
“For teens, the insight that thoughts are not facts is quite a revelation,” said Amanda Bailey, chief operating officer of the Bright Futures Educational Trust. “They realise they have a choice over which thoughts to follow. It supports them in exam stress and [instead of panicking] it allows them to put space between themselves and a difficult question.”
She said small research projects had shown a simple and shortened version of mindfulness meditation reduced impulsiveness, shouting and anger in autistic children.
“A larger trial might provide evidence for mindfulnesses’ effects on attentiveness and maybe even school achievement,” she said.
Over 1,000 prisoners and detainees in immigration centres are being taught meditation with yoga by the Prison Phoenix Trust. A study of the effects of courses across seven institutions in the West Midlands, focusing on 167 prisoners, found impulsiveness among prisoners – a key driver of criminal behaviour – was reduced.
“Their stress was lower, their mood was better and anything that helps prisoners be calmer and sleep better makes prisons a better place for rehabilitation,” said Sam Settle, director of the trust.
Young offenders in Devon are being taught mindfulness techniques to reduce reoffending.
Henrietta Ireland, a youth offending manager, said teaching such children mindfulness in a group proved too difficult, but they have seen progress one on one.
“There was one girl under statutory controls who came in highly anxious,” Ireland said. “She was shouting and screaming that she was going to hit someone. I managed to get her to calm down and got her to start thinking about her feet. We then started talking about her breathing in through her nose and down into the feet. A week later she came in again in the same state and I asked her to think about her breathing again. If she can use it in her own life it will help her.”