Mindfulness is an inherent human capacity that can be cultivated intentionally through attending to personal phenomena (e.g. sensations, thoughts and feelings) and moving through the present moment with an attitude of kindness, curiosity and non–judgment. The formalisation of mindfulness as a clinical approach has received increasing attention in the last decade in particular, as a result of the growing evidence-base for its effectiveness. Mindfulness based interventions (MBIs) have been shown to be effective in a wide range of health and non-health-related problems ranging from clinical trials in a variety of diseases, and psychological disorders, to the impact on the mental and emotional well-being of school children. The development of MBIs and a strong research foundation has led to a growing popularisation of mindfulness. There is a risk that the mainstreaming of mindfulness may lead to a slow dilution in the integrity of the approach. In this context, the effective and ethical training of teachers to deliver MBI’s in diverse contexts is an important development in the pedagogy of mindfulness.
Teaching and research in MBIs has largely been conducted in America and Europe. There is a limited body of research in the area of MBI’s in developing countries and this Masters programme, the only one on the African continent, will add to the growing body of knowledge in this rapidly burgeoning field. The rationale for the programme is to develop a South African (and African), context-sensitive research base for the application and implementation of mindfulness approaches in diverse aspects of South African society. It will also foster, train and develop a diverse range of competent researchers who can innovatively contribute to the development of new knowledge in the field of mindfulness based interventions at an advanced level. This knowledge has the potential to benefit the health and welfare of our society as has been demonstrated and described in other countries.
Global research has shown the benefit of training in mindfulness for clinical and non-clinical populations’ psychological and physical health. MBIs have the potential to reach many who are unable to access preventive mental health programmes due to limited financial resources, health care workers and infrastructure. The programmes’ strengths include group-based format, flexibility (programme length, in-person/online) adaptability (contextual), non-secular, acceptable and non-stigmatising, encouragement of participant management of personal health and wellbeing, as well as the potential to be offered by well-trained general health workers under supervision of mental health practitioners. It has been shown that knowledge of and experience in mindfulness practice increases the likelihood of personal use for stress reduction, well-being, and recommendation to others. Research will also play a significant role in the safe provision and increased visibility of these interventions to contribute benefit for Africa.
While the certificate training is focused on the application of mindfulness-based approaches, it is essential that the uptake, impact and requisite adaptations are considered through high-level academic research. This will ensure that not only the standard of training but also quality of offerings of these interventions and approaches to the public are assessed to ensure the quality and effectiveness of the approach is maintained and changes that need to be made in various contexts in which these interventions are offered can be considered.
The purpose of this programme is to provide guidance to researchers who can contribute to the development of knowledge in the field of mindfulness based interventions at an advanced level. This programme aims to develop excellence with regard to research in the field of mindfulness based interventions in order to benefit not only patients but also the community and the country; thus impacting on society. It is not only future focused, hoping to develop future leaders in the field of MBIs and research for the country, but also focused on making a significant contribution to increasing students’ skills in interventions and research.
Nikki Boyd, a registered Counsellor and trained in Mindfulness interventions, is the first person to complete the MPhil in Mindfulness and graduated in December 2021. She decided to pursue this degree given that a large body of international research has shown the benefit of cognitive training in the practice of mindfulness in varied areas. However, in South Africa, such research is still in its infancy. She was concerned about students’ increased levels of stress, anxiety, and low mood. Despite student interest in the reported benefits of mindfulness, time constraints discouraged attendance of traditional programmes. She was inspired by Williams and Penman’s (2011) ‘Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’ with its shortened practices and habit releasers, its facilitation, and the programme’s reported positive benefits for students at Cambridge University. Her interest was to investigate and document this approach for non-clinical populations as a starting point in tertiary education.
High levels of stress in medical student have negative personal, academic, and patient consequences. Additional stressors unique to the South African context provide adds another dimension for South African MBChB students. For her research project she investigated the feasibility of a six-week mindfulness-based intervention compared to supportive counselling in a randomised controlled trial for stress reduction and resilience for medical students at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University. Her results indicated significant benefits for both groups’ wellbeing, decreased perceived stress and enhanced stress management. It was noted that self-compassion decreased over time. Mindfulness reflected as a significant treatment effect in the mindfulness group. Since research in this area was unexplored, it was difficult to know how mindfulness training would be received. “What was significant was that time-constrained medical students signed up for the programme, participated well and showed benefits from their participation“.
Now that the programme has its first graduate, Dr Alexander hopes that they can develop a South African (and African) context-sensitive research base so that they can more wisely apply and implement mindfulness approaches in our diverse South African society and on the continent. The programme currently has two prospective students who are busy with their research protocols. Nikki Boyd, given the results of her MPhil research study and its promise has decided to embark on a PhD in Mindfulness “I believe that a main study will contribute further information to enable the provision of students’ mental health enhancement strategies in this area”.
For information on the MPhil in Mindfulness, see here.
Dr Debra Alexander, PhD, Convenor of the MPhil Mindfulness degree programme.
Nikki Boyd, Registered Counsellor, teacher of mindfulness-based interventions, and part-time lecturer.