The Wellbeing Economics All Party Parliamentary Group in the UK’s Westminster parliament had a meeting discussing mindfulness on 9th April 2014. Here’s my report; you can see an ‘official’ write-up here

I have just attended a meeting at the House of Commons focusing on mindfulness. An All Party Parliamentary Group is a grouping of MPs and Lords around a particular topic. The Wellbeing Economics group explores how the wellbeing agenda can be put into practice, and approaches mindfulness as part of that. The session focused on health and education and featured expert witnesses, some parliamentarians and members of he public, many of whom teach or research mindfulness. Here is a brief account of what happened (I won’t comment further here).

Mindfulness in Healthcare

The first three expert witnesses spoke on health.

Willem Kuyken, of Exeter University is a leading figure in mindfulness research and training. He introduced mindfulness and identified three main challenges in its development: producing reliable scientific evidence for its efficacy – and not over-claiming its benefits; maintaining the integrity of mindfulness practice as a part of an ancient tradition; and scaling up provision: how can we do this on a very large scale?

Jonty Heaversedge (a GP and health commissioner), spoke of the need for mindfulness in NHS provision. It addresses both physical and psychological issues (which are interconnected but typically are addressed separately); it helps people make better lifestyle choices; and it helps health practitioners manage their own stress and in their work. However, he also described the problems that can arise in trying to offer mindfulness on a large scale. For example, an initiative to offer mindfulness within a ‘pain pathway’ across the London Borough of Southwark failed to win approval because the savings were too hard to identify as they were spread out across many aspects of patients’ involvement with the NHS. Other issues were offering provision on a sufficiently wide scale and raising awareness among GPs.

Heema Shukla of Public Health England offered a perspective on the issues mindfulness raises for health commissioners and suggested some of the questions they are likely to ask in looking at mindfulness. What resources does it require? What are the opportunity costs? How will it affect wellbeing? And does it improve social connectedness? What level of training do staff need before they can implement it? And how can we decide who will benefit most? She suggested that commissioners were likely to regard it as one tool among others, and also suggested that a good strategy was to start young. She also commented that she found mindfulness particularly interesting as it addressed both the mind and the body.

Mindfulness in Education

The next three witnesses spoke on education.

Richard Burnett of the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) led a short exercise in directing awareness and briefly described MiSP’s work. He said that children and young people get the point of the exercise very quickly, and are often motivated to learn mindfulness for the simple reason that it works. It helps in two ways: supporting mental health and wellbeing; and supporting the capacity to learn. The challenge MiSP faces is training enough teachers to make it widely available. However, mindfulness helps teachers themselves, and the UK is a leader in this field.

Professor Katherine Weare of Exeter University is an expert in promoting social and emotional learning in schools who now focuses on mindfulness. She reported that research shows that universal mindfulness programmes in schools have a small but significant effect. However, targeted work, focused on students with emotional and mental health needs is moderately effective (that’s good!). Mindfulness training helps students in many ways that are connected with Emotional Intelligence and it also helps them to reassess their values, supporting better choices. The danger she identifies is that it becomes instrumental, viewed by students and teachers as a way to pass exams. Mindfulness, she said, starts with ourselves; it isn’t something we do to others. A meta analysis is now being conducted into the mindfulness in schools.

The final witness was Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College and a well known writer and commentator on education who has made mindfulness and similar approaches central to his school. He spoke eloquently of the nature and significance of mindfulness as part of a human education that fosters young people in a rounded way.

After these presentations came a period of questions and discussion. The MPs, however, rushed out halfway through to vote in the Commons and some of them never found their way back …

An All Party Parliamentary Group dedicated specifically to mindfulness will launch on May 7th 2014.