‘Simply does not work’: Trendy mindfulness training doesn’t boost teens’ mental health

LONDON — Mindfulness training doesn’t appear to provide the benefits to teens many schools were hoping for when it comes to mental health, a new study reveals.

The practice draws on Buddhist thinking and has become a part of the daily schedule for students in schools across the world. However, study authors say it probably isn’t necessary and other options for improving mental health should be under consideration. The study found there are some benefits for teachers and the “school climate” but any benefits are short-lived and the overall evidence that mindfulness works is weak.

The MYRIAD (My Resilience in Adolescence) trial involved thousands of teens and hundreds of teachers across the United Kingdom.

“The use of this specific school-based mindfulness curriculum, as a universal intervention for young people in early adolescence, is not indicated,” researchers write in the journal Evidence Based Mental Health.

“Future research should explore whether different social−emotional trainings might be appropriate to promote mental health, paying close attention to the unique needs of young people in terms of their age and mental health status.”

Mindfulness ‘won’t be enough’ after the pandemic

The findings are based on five studies involving 85 secondary schools, nearly 700 teachers, and almost 8,500 pupils between 11 and 16 years-old. All of the participants received standard social-emotional learning as part of the curriculum.

“Mindfulness can be helpful in managing emotions, but it won’t be enough for those children and young people who need support with their mental wellbeing, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic,” says Dr. Elaine Lockhart, Chair of the Child and Adolescent Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which co-owns the journal, in a media release.

“They will need a full range of services to meet their mental health needs, and getting help early is absolutely key in preventing mental health problems from developing or escalating in adulthood.”

“That’s why it’s vital that schools appoint mental health leads who are given enough time and training to deliver on the whole school approach and to have mental health support teams in place, so that children and young people can get help before they reach crisis,” Lockhart continues.

“A small number will also need properly staffed specialist mental health services to provide clinical care and to work with other services in the communities where they live.”

Mental health problems often start during the teen years, according to the MYRIAD trial researchers. It is a period of heightened vulnerability amid increasing academic, social, and emotional demands.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is currently part of the curriculum in many secondary schools. It aims to develop the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that young teens need for school, work, and personal life.

One approach that has shown promise is mindfulness training. The version offered in U.K. schools typically involves teachers learning mindfulness themselves. That’s followed by training in how to deliver it to their students in 10 lessons of 30 to 50 minutes.

How does mindfulness training work?

Mindfulness training involves learning how to pay attention (attentional control) and understand and manage feelings and behaviors (emotional and social regulation). The practice aims to boost resilience in the face of external stressors and promote good mental health. Previous research suggests mindfulness training is good for teachers and students. Many schools are now experimenting with it.

However, design flaws and inadequate numbers of participants have undermined the findings of most of these studies. In one trial, 41 schools and 310 teachers were randomly assigned to continue SEL, while 43 schools and 362 teachers included mindfulness training.

After an initial eight-week course the mindfulness program enhanced teachers’ mental health and reduced burnout as well as improving some dimensions of the school climate. After a year, however, these effects all but disappeared.

In another study, 460 11 to 16-year-olds were randomly assigned to either mindfulness training (235) or to a matched study skills curriculum (225) before the pandemic. They were monitored in the midst of the pandemic to see whether mindfulness training enabled them to stave off worsening mental health. There was no evidence that it had been any more protective than study skills training.

The results of a further comparative study suggested school mindfulness training might be best suited for older children and those who are already in good mental health. Researchers deemed it unsuitable for younger children and those with existing and emerging mental health symptoms — prompting the researchers to question its use as a universal intervention.

A pooled data analysis of 66 randomized controlled trials involving 20,168 participants, indicated that mindfulness-based programs led to small but significant improvements. These included boosts in attention, self-control, antisocial behavior, depression, and anxiety or stress, in comparison to other approaches.

Unfortunately, the programs didn’t improve well-being, nor was there any evidence of sustained benefits a year later.

‘We seriously have to consider that it simply does not work’

“The enthusiasm for [mindfulness based programs] in youth has arguably run ahead of the evidence. While [they] show promising results for some outcomes, in general, the evidence is of low quality and inconclusive,” study authors write.

Prof. Pim Cuijpers, of Vrije University Amsterdam, who was not involved in the study, says it is still unclear if universal mindfulness training in schools really does boost psychological resilience and stave off mental illness.

“The fully powered, high quality MYRIAD trial was a courageous attempt to come up with the right answer. It showed that universal prevention is probably not effective,” Cuijpers says.

“Although no definite conclusion about this can yet be drawn, because there may be alternative explanations for the null findings,” he cautions, “we seriously have to consider that it simply does not work.”

“That is not a positive conclusion, but it does point out that we may have to consider other options.”

“The findings from this study certainly suggest there is a need to consider whether the mental health support we are providing to teenagers within schools is fit for purpose,” adds Dr. Dan O’Hare, co-vice-chair of the Division of Educational and Child Psychology of the British Psychological Society, which also co-owns the journal.

“While mindfulness sessions can be hugely beneficial, it’s important to understand that it isn’t a surface level intervention, and how children and teenagers respond to it will be affected by the context in which it’s being taught and the school environment,” O’Hare continues.

“We would always advocate for mental health support programs and interventions to be led by a psychologist and informed by psychological expertise and evidence. And this often needs to be tailored to individual children and their circumstances. It is important not to view mindfulness sessions as a panacea, and as an ‘off the shelf’ product that can just help teenagers and their teachers to become ‘more resilient’, without appreciating all the other influential factors, such as the school environment.”

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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