Youth Mental Health Not Always Improved By School Mindfulness Programs

  • A series of U.K.-based studies found that mindfulness training in schools did not directly improve adolescent mental health.
  • Mindfulness did benefit teachers’ well-being and enhanced the overall school climate.
  • Young people face increasing mental health concerns and are in need of effective support.
  • Future research could explore how different mindfulness techniques might more effectively improve the mental well-being of young people.

There are many benefits of mindfulness for kids, but new research suggests it may not be for everyone.

A series of new studies, conducted by the My Resilience in Adolescence (MYRIAD) Project in the United Kingdom and published in Evidence-Based Mental Health, suggests that mindfulness training in schools may not offer any additional benefits for adolescent mental health.

“Small effects [were seen] immediately after the intervention was completed,” said Tim Dalgleish, program lead for the Cognition, Emotion and Mental Health Programme and director of the Cambridge Centre for Affective Disorders at the University of Cambridge, in a press briefing on the study.

“[But] when we looked at [a] follow-up 6 months down the line or a year later, all those effects had washed out.”

The 8-year program comprised seven studies, two of which were randomized controlled trials (RTCs) — involving 8,376 children at 85 schools — investigating the effectiveness of teaching mindfulness in school.

Selected teachers undertook an 8-week-long training course in mindfulness before leading sessions involving techniques such as meditation and body scanning.

Before the trials began, researchers hypothesized that mindfulness would help improve teens’ mental health — but the results indicated otherwise.

“Mindfulness training did not do better than what schools were already doing in terms of teenagers’ mental health or well-being,” said Willem Kuyken, PhD, Sir John Ritblat Family Foundation Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science at the University of Oxford and one of the program’s leads, in a press briefing.

Although mindfulness did not improve youth mental health overall, there were still some benefits, according to researchers.

“When we look closely at our data, [we find that] students who did engage did improve,” said J. Mark G. Williams, DPhil, DSc, professor emeritus of clinical psychology and honorary senior research fellow at Oxford, and another program lead, in a press briefing.

This positive finding reflects the results from previous studies on school mindfulness programs. For instance, a 2018 meta-analysis found that teaching mindfulness in school had small- to medium-scale positive impacts on mental health, including reduced symptoms associated with stress, anxiety, and depression.

In addition, a 2020 study and a smaller study from 2015 — both involving younger school children — saw that mindfulness improved feelings of life satisfaction, emotional awareness, and overall mental well-being.

The results from the MYRIAD also suggest that mindfulness could indirectly improve teens’ well-being.

“Interestingly we found a [positive] effect on school climate,” Kuyken told Healthline. “[This] is associated with a range of other desirable outcomes in school, positive behavior, mental health, and academic attainment.”

In addition, notable benefits were experienced by teachers. “Burnout rates went down after the intervention among teachers, and their mental health also improved,” Kuyken said.

Still, teacher burnout rates were not significant at the 1-year follow-up.

Several factors were noted by MYRIAD researchers as potentially influencing the results, including the children’s age, existing mental health concerns, and socioeconomic status.

In addition, researchers and experts suggest there are other factors that may have influenced the ineffectiveness of some of the mindfulness programs. Here’s a look at a few of them.

Lack of interest

For mindfulness to be effective, regular practice is key. But according to researchers, commitment levels were an issue among teens, with around 80% of participants not practicing mindfulness outside of the classroom as instructed. “Many of them found it boring,” Williams said.

However, teens’ seeming lack of interest in mindfulness may not be so straightforward.

“Teenagers are often experiencing heightened emotions and hormonal imbalances that can feel challenging to control and manage,” Rachel Vora, MA, MBACP, psychotherapist and founder of CYP Wellbeing, told Healthline. “Mindfulness requires a level of discipline, calm, and structure [they] may struggle to engage with.”

Poor quality instruction

Teachers’ enthusiasm, skill, and attitude may have also been a factor. “Those who had the most skilled teachers enjoyed the sessions, practiced mindfulness more, and showed more benefit afterwards,” Williams said.

But some teachers might not have a desire to lead mindfulness practices or lack time to incorporate them into their schedules.

“[Teachers] may also bring their own stressors or issues into the session, which can be felt by the students,” Sheena Tanna-Shah, a therapist and mindfulness practitioner, told Healthline.

No one-size-fits-all approach

There are many ways to practice mindfulness, and techniques that work well for one person may be very different than what works for another.

“Some [participants] may like listening to a mindfulness app or going for mindfulness walks,” noted Tanna-Shah. “Others may use breathwork more or start to do certain activities more mindfully.”

Yet the mindfulness techniques in the MYRIAD trials weren’t adapted to meet individual student needs. Be that as it may, a 2022 meta-analysis conducted by MYRIAD researchers supports the case for diversifying mindfulness practices. “There is some suggestion that a lot of U.S.-based [mindfulness] curricula are actually effective,” Kuyken said.

According to Kuyken, U.K.-based mindfulness curricula often involve a greater focus on breathing and movement exercises compared to U.S.-based programs. For instance, a 2015 study conducted in the U.S. shows that students “developed keener emotional appraisal and improved emotional regulation skills” following regular mindful yoga practice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that youth mental health has been declining for more than a decade and has only worsened during the pandemic.

Recent CDC data also shows that one-third of high schoolers report feeling persistently sad or hopeless, while 1 in 10 children ages 3 to 17 years old experience anxiety.

“Other common mental health issues include self-harm and eating disorders,” Vora said. “These are often generated by feelings of overwhelm and intense emotional pain that children either internalize or channel into unhealthy coping strategies to attempt to reduce their levels of discomfort.”

Mental health conditions such as these are cause for concern, but the need for support during the teenage years extends even further.

“Both the psychology and the brain go through important fundamental changes in adolescence that set the trajectory of people’s lives,” Kuygen said.

Despite what results from the MYRIAD trials might suggest, mindfulness may be helpful for improving mental health when a practitioner is engaged and practices regularly.

To improve engagement, teachings could consider children’s unique circumstances and be designed to help improve and support school culture as a whole. It’s also vital to gauge student feedback. “Schools need to look and see how [mindfulness teaching] is being received,” Williams said.

MYRIAD researchers will continue investigating the potential of school mindfulness offerings to better understand their effectiveness and tailor programs to teach students social-emotional skills that improve their well-being.

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