"Anyone can be happy by simply training their brain" Matthieu Ricard
You may have recently read, no doubt with some alarm if you have children, that English children are some of the unhappiest in the world. Though it seems counterintuitive that children in poverty-stricken or war-torn countries could be happier than English children, by examining how children felt about themselves, their school experiences and their lives, this is sadly what the Children's Society's data society indicated.
As well as unhappiness, according to the ONS, one in 10 UK children aged between five and 16 has a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder. Data suggests that mental health problems in children are on the rise - with twice as many young people regularly feeling depressed in 2006 than in 1986, and the number of children being admitted to hospitals for self-harm increasing 68% over the last 10 years.
While the media responds with surprise, this is not news to those involved with children's development. A recent survey of head teachers revealed that the vast majority were concerned about the mental health of their students and other data has shown parents share this concern, with a recent Action for Children's report citing mental health as their chief concern above obesity or cancer.
Adult mental health and work productivity
Unhappiness and mental health issues do not stop in childhood. We are working harder than ever before to compete for and retain the best jobs. People in Britain today can expect to have an average of nine jobs and 55% of them can also expect to be made redundant at least once during their lifetime.
It is therefore not surprising that stress levels in the workplace are rising. One study has even claimed that 24% of employees are more stressed than a year ago, and that 50% of British workers are more stressed at work than the European average. Mental health has been estimated to cost huge sums and a large part of this falls on the work place, with £15.1billion per year in reduced productivity, while £8.4billion is lost to mental health related sickness absence.
The increasingly challenging workplace environment means that British employees need to possess high resilience and "grit." Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has recognised and responded to this need with significant funding to develop character-building activities in schools. But do we need to look more fundamentally to ensure that the school curriculum prepares our children to cope with the pressures of modern life?
A few decades ago the idea of tackling issues such as stress, mental health and resilience with meditation would have been dismissed as part of eccentric hippy lore. Yet there is a coherent reason that the US Marines, Bill Clinton and Google are all now practicing meditation, while Oxford University has a dedicated mindfulness Centre and the Wellcome Trust just invested £6.4million into research on the subject.
Mindfulness is based on meditation practices and is the "training in concentration and self-awareness that has been shown to support top performance and good mental health. Mindfulness is a form of mental training that develops sustained attention." (Mindfulness Foundation)
While there is a lack of longitudinal studies, research in the field has expanded exponentially in the last twenty years, and the evidence is provoking on its effects on people's mental and emotional health as well as academic learning and work performance.
A study by the US Department of Health and Human Services and Johns Hopkins University found that just two months of meditation was effective medication in treating depression and anxiety. The effects appear to be both tangible and biological in practitioners, with one study, which used MRI scans, finding that after a short course in mindfulness practice, the brain's "fight or flight" centre that initiates the body's response to stress - the amygdala - appeared to shrink.
Bringing mindfulness and meditation into schools
Schools are places to prepare children for life. This means not just focusing on academic skills needed to get into work, but providing children with the tools and resilience for managing the pressures of work. Much evidence points to the fact that those who succeed are not those who are simply academically gifted but those who possess certain essential character traits such as self-control, emotional intelligence and grit.
We have a responsibility to look into what tools we can provide children with to handle their increasingly high-paced lives. The data above demonstrates that there is a clear argument for implementing mindfulness in schools. This should be piloted in a number of schools, either as a part of their curriculum or within broader school culture, for example during their assemblies.
The APPG on Wellbeing supported the idea that mindfulness could be practiced in schools to tackle mental health problems and nurture children's emotional wellbeing. They noted that the slow progress in this area reflected the lack of integration between mental health and other aspects of our lives, as well as by the perception that "wellbeing is irrelevant to the core business of the education system - despite its clear links with academic attainment."
Indeed, various studies have found that when schools participate in meditation programmes this can result in as many as twice the amount of students scoring proficiently in tests and that suspensions can reduce by almost fifty percent during. Studies also suggest it may provide particular benefits for children with special needs, with one study showing that it improved the symptoms of adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and reduced aggressive behaviour in boys.
First, we need a monitoring system in place so that we can identify emerging problems in children and so respond accordingly. Indeed, it has been found that up to 75% of mental health problems can be spotted before a child leaves school. The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire is a questionnaire used widely across the globe to do just this and could also be piloted in schools.
If children adopt meditation as a lifelong coping mechanism this could have a knock-on positive impact in later life when they join the UK's workforce. A study with staff from Transport for London found that meditation led to a 70% reduction in the number of days taken off due to stress, depression and anxiety, and a 50% reduction in absenteeism, while 53% said they felt happier in their roles.
Mindfulness might seem like a wishy-washy solution to a serious problem. But a similar scepticism existed a century ago towards exercise, when a group of scientists at the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory (HFL) began pioneering work in the field of exercise physiology and its importance. Yet again, evidence is pointing to the fact that we can develop mental fitness and strength in the same way we can develop physical fitness and strength, and that this could be equally critical for our health.
Appetite for change
The appetite for prioritising mental health and wellbeing is there. Some leading private schools are already including mindfulness as part of the curriculum. David Cameron himself has said we need to focus on general wellbeing as much as GDP; and the government has kept true to its word and set up a measuring platform to calculate national wellbeing. The Department for Education now has a minister for children's mental health and this area is formally the fifth largest priority for the department.
The World Health Organisation has claimed that, by 2030, mental health will be the biggest burden on health care resources. With more and more research showing that mental health is worsening in our schools and that this problem poses serious long-term costs of as much as £105billion a year, then now is the time to be innovative, look at what's working and act. It's time to start piloting mindfulness in our schools, and measure its success.