A new U.K. study discovers mindfulness training can improve the mental health of university students. The finding is important as recent evidence suggests university students are more likely to develop mental health problems when compared with the general population.

The University of Bristol-led study investigated if mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) could be effective at improving mental health and well-being in medical students. This group is considered more at risk of developing a stress-related illness.

Results of the study appear in the journal Education Research International.

Investigators recruited 57 medical students, who had been referred to a mindfulness group either by their GP or student advisor, to take part in an eight-week mindfulness program. Students were required to attend the training for two hours each week and commit to 30-minute daily home practice in between sessions.

The training, which took place between Autumn 2011 and Spring 2015, taught participants how the mind works, how stress impacts one’s life, an awareness of stress triggers and signs of stress symptoms, coping techniques, meditation practice, and the importance of self-care.

At the end of each program students completed a survey that included a free text response. The researchers also conducted six qualitative interviews lasting between 60 and 90 minutes.

The students reported mindfulness training went further than learning a set of tools for coping with emotional difficulty. Students described improved empathy and communication skills when with patients through their newly learned ability to notice their own thoughts and feelings.

Students also reported an improved ability to manage their workload better as well as a new ability to notice automatic judgmental thinking (such as not being good enough) without identifying with these thoughts.

Additionally, participants described how mindfulness helped enhance their relationship to learning. They described using the mindfulness practices to refresh and regain concentration during long days of study as well as using the mindfulness practices to steady themselves during stressful situations in clinic or during exams.

Investigators believe more research is needed but these initial findings suggest that mindfulness training had helped students at Bristol. Specifically, the training was seen as a method to reduce anxiety, excessive worry, negative thought patterns and improve resiliency to stress as well as improve emotional wellbeing and professional development.

Co-author Dr. Alice Malpass, research fellow in the Bristol Medical School: Population Health Sciences (PHS), said, “At Bristol, we are continuing to increase efforts to find solutions to improve mental health among the student population. Our aim is to find effective new ways of supporting students who may be suffering from stress and anxiety.

“This study has shown how mindfulness can help students who might be struggling, in particular medical students, find new ways of relating to the difficulties that arise in their clinical work, studying and well-being.

“We have developed a theoretical model of the medical student ‘stress signature’, mapping how mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can break the cycle of specific vulnerability through the development of new coping strategies.”

In Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S., mindfulness training is part of the medical curriculum but has yet to be implemented in the U.K.. Policy recommendations from the General Medical Council (GMC), the body responsible for improving medical education in the U.K., recommend the use of mindfulness training to increase wellbeing and resilience to stress.

The researchers suggest a U.K. wide survey should be carried out to find out how other medical schools in the U.K. are implementing GMC mindfulness training guidelines and how this compares to what medical schools are delivering in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S.

Source: University of Bristol