Mindfulness in schools does not improve mental health, study finds | Mental health

School-based mindfulness training does not appear to boost wellbeing or improve the mental health of teenagers, according to research that found many pupils were bored by the course and did not practise it at home.

At a time when concern is mounting about poor mental heath among children and young people in the UK, researchers wanted to find out whether a universal mindfulness intervention in secondary schools might help build resilience and have a positive impact on pupil wellbeing.

Mindfulness has become a popular meditation technique aimed at focusing the mind on the present moment, and involves learning how to pay attention and manage feelings and behaviour, to improve resilience in the face of external stressors.

While it has been found to help with the symptoms of depression and anxiety in some studies, researchers from the My Resilience in Adolescence (Myriad) trial found the broad school-based mindfulness offer was no more effective than what schools were already doing to support student mental health with social-emotional learning.

The research was based on a cluster of five studies, carried out over eight years by about 100 researchers working with 28,000 teenagers and 650 teachers in 100 schools. It typically involved teachers learning mindfulness themselves, followed by training in how to deliver it to their students in 10 lessons of 30-50 minutes.

While evidence for the effectiveness of this approach among pupils was “weak”, researchers found it had a positive impact on the teachers involved, reducing burn-out, and also on the general school climate or culture, though these positive effects were relatively short-lived.

The study, from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Exeter, King’s College London, University College London and Pennsylvania State in the US, was published in the Evidence-Based Mental Health journal.

Prof Mark Williams, the found director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and co-investigator at the University of Oxford, said the findings confirmed the huge burden of mental health challenges that young people face, and the urgent need to find a way to help.

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“They also show that the idea of mindfulness doesn’t help – it’s the practice that matters.” Those students that did engage improved, he said, but most did not. “On average they only practised once over 10 weeks of the course. And that’s like going to the gym once and hoping you’ll get fit. But why didn’t they practise? Well, because many of them found it boring.”

He went on: “If today’s young people are to be enthused enough to practise mindfulness, then updating training to suit different needs and giving them a say in the approach they prefer are the vital next steps.”

Dr Elaine Lockhart, the chair of the child and adolescent faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which co-owns Evidence-Based Mental Health, said children and young people were suffering after the pandemic.

“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.

“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.”

Dr Dan O’Hare, a co vice-chair of the division of educational and child psychology at the British Psychological Society, added: “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.

“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.”

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