A Mental Health Trial in England Will Teach Thousands of Children About Mindfulness and Well-Being

Children in up to 370 schools across the country will learn about mindfulness, relaxation, and well-being at an age when they're most vulnerable.

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While many individuals struggle with mental health later in their lifetimes, most mental health challenges present themselves in childhood and early adolescence. In order to better understand and prepare for such challenges, the British government is participating in one of the largest mental health trials in the world to figure out how to support children’s psychological health from an early age.

According to the British Department for Education and Department of Health and Social Care, students in up to 370 schools across England will learn mindfulness and breathing exercises, as well as relaxation techniques, to help them cope with stress, anxiety, and other pressures they might face. The study will span through 2021 and “aims to give schools new, robust evidence about what works best for their students’ mental health and wellbeing.”

“As a society, we are much more open about our mental health than ever before, but the modern world has brought new pressures for children, while potentially making others worse,” says Damian Hinds, the British Education Secretary, in a news release about the trial. As part of the trial, Hinds says children will be introduced to the concepts of mental health, well-being, and happiness at the beginning of primary school, and compulsory health education will be introduced in all schools.

“These trials are actually testing more than just mindfulness practices,” says Jessica Deighton, Ph.D., an associate professor in child mental health and well-being at University College London and head of resilience research at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, who is leading the government trials. “There are five interventions being tested across the two trials: mindfulness, relaxation, strategies for safety and well-being, and two existing interventions, one known as ‘the guide’ originating in Canada and the other known as ‘youth aware of mental health,’ developed in Sweden. The uniqueness of this trial is the scale and the diversity of the interventions within it.”

Deighton says the universal prevention and intervention programs used throughout the trial will work to normalize the topic of mental health, and equip children with the skills necessary to manage their mental health throughout their lifetimes. Deighton says staff members in participating schools will take part in workshops through the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families and receive a range of print and web-based supportive materials that can be used in the classroom.

As detailed by the news release, the trial will also focus on “lighter-touch approaches” to cope with stress, such as muscle relaxation techniques, and emphasize the importance of creating peer-to-peer support networks within students’ academic environments.

The trial is taking off at just the right time. According to The New York Times, the trial can be seen as a response to a National Health Service survey finding that “one in eight children in England between the ages of 5 and 19 suffered from at least one mental disorder at the time of their assessment in 2017.” While there has been some criticism of the trial — The Times reports that two Parliamentary committees were concerned the trial is too focused on handling emotional problems instead of preventing them — its multifaceted and inclusive nature aims to educate children when they are most vulnerable and prepare them for what lies ahead. “The focus is very much on finding practices that are feasible for schools to embed and sustain,” Deighton says.

The trial, as well as the marking of Children’s Mental Health week from Feb. 4-Feb. 10, show just how much the country is prioritizing well-being among its youth. Kate Middleton visited two London schools on Feb. 5 to show her support of Children’s Mental Health Week, which is facilitated by her charity, Place2Be. During her visit, the Duchess of Cambridge brought a photo of her family for an activity in which students shared objects that made them feel good.

“This is a photograph of my family. These are my children and this is my husband. And my family makes me feel happy,” Middleton told the children, People reports. “And we like playing outside together and spending lots of time together as a family, and that makes me feel very happy.”

With a renewed drive to confront and overcome mental health problems, government officials, clinicians, and educators across England are hopeful to put an end to the depression, anxiety, and other common mental health problems children face.

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