The University of Rwanda, University of Aberdeen, and Addis Ababa University have embarked on a four-year project aimed at designing, implementing, and assessing the impact of mindfulness interventions in schools, focusing on the mental well-being of children and adolescents across sub-Saharan Africa. Representatives from the three institutions convened in Kigali on Wednesday, September 13 to discuss the implementation process and exchange insights on research methodologies. Supported by a grant of £2.88 million (over Rwf4.3 billion) from the National Institute of Health and Care Research (NIHR), this initiative seeks to address a critical gap in understanding the benefits of mindfulness practices in a region where evidence remains scarce, and it will be implemented in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, and Burera District in Rwanda's Northern Province. ALSO READ: Mindfulness at work: Keys to finding peace at work Mindfulness in schools: A global imperative Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. According to Prof Pamela Abbott from the University of Aberdeen, the World Health Organization (WHO) backs the importance of preventive mental health interventions in educational settings. “Mindfulness, characterised by a deliberate focus on the present moment, fosters relaxation and stress reduction,’’ she said. “For children and adolescents, cultivating mindfulness can enhance happiness, attention span, stress management, overall well-being, and communication skills. Furthermore, it has shown potential to boost academic performance. However, much of the existing research on mindfulness interventions has been conducted in Europe and North America, and that’s one of the reasons why this project is targeting Rwanda and Ethiopia,” Abbott said. Sub-Saharan Africa's need for mindfulness During a discussion with Dr Tsion Hailu, a practicing psychiatrist and professor at Addis Ababa University, said, Africa still lacks knowledge of mental well-being and mental illnesses in general. However, over time, the continent has been making progress. I see this research contributing to our knowledge base and genuinely assisting some people, especially children. When a child is mentally well, they are also capable of performing well. The project recognises the pressing need to investigate the impact of mindfulness on the well-being of children and adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa. Given the unique sociocultural context of this region, understanding the effectiveness of mindfulness practices becomes imperative. The research consortium comprises experts in health, social sciences, and teacher education from Ethiopia, Rwanda, and the UK. Additionally, an international advisory board, featuring government officials from both nations, contributes to the project's direction. Local community members, including parents, teachers, children, adolescents, and policymakers, are actively involved in the design of the mindfulness intervention. Project implementation The project encompasses several key activities, starting with the exploration of affordable and culturally appropriate mindfulness interventions. Collaborative discussions with parents and policymakers aim to finalise intervention strategies. Teacher-educators will work closely with primary school teachers to develop the intervention, and these trained educators will subsequently train their colleagues. The ultimate goal is to integrate mindfulness practices into the primary school curriculum, ensuring broad access for all children. Evaluating impact, sharing knowledge To gauge the effectiveness of the mindfulness intervention, comprehensive assessments will be conducted. Researchers will engage with children, adolescents, teachers, and parents to gather insights into their experiences. Mental well-being assessments will be administered both before and after intervention delivery, enabling the measurement of improvements. Comparisons will be drawn between students who received mindfulness training and those who did not, accounting for any concurrent life changes. The findings from this project will be instrumental in guiding policymakers in Rwanda and Ethiopia. The research team will present evidence, including an economic model showcasing potential cost savings and benefits, to advocate for the integration of mindfulness practices across all schools. Childhood experiences significantly shape an individual's future mental health. Improving the mental well-being of children and adolescents not only enhances their quality of life during childhood but also sets the stage for a happier, healthier, and more productive adulthood. By reducing the likelihood of mental and physical health issues, such interventions contribute to long-term societal benefits and reduced healthcare expenditures. Capacity-building, knowledge exchange During an interview with Professor Wenceslas Nzabalirwa from the University of Rwanda, he emphasised, In addition to advancing the field of mindfulness research, this project is dedicated to strengthening research capacity. It is supporting four PhD students and offering placements for four post-doctoral researchers. Early career researchers will play a crucial role in every aspect of the research, from initial design to disseminating findings, thus ensuring the sustainability of transdisciplinary health research in the future. This will help not only Rwanda but also the whole region.