Mindfulness is less helpful for combating stress in young people

For thousands of children and teenagers, September marks the return to school, and with it the associated stress. Can stress be countered with mindfulness training in youth? The findings of a large-scale project suggest that it cannot be, really.

This post is also available in Dutch.

Mental health in adolescence

Adolescence is a crucial period for self-development and learning to deal with stress. The ability to manage your emotions is important for setting yourself up for the future, and preventing mental health problems, for example, depression and anxiety. It is estimated that a majority of mental health problems starts in teenage years; currently 1 in 7 adolescents face mental health issues. Mindfulness training has been suggested as a way to deal with stress and anxiety, in adults and youth. Mindfulness can be described as bringing attention to moment-by-moment experience, and can be achieved through various meditation techniques. Seeing the potential of teaching mindfulness to children at school to promote mental health and well-being has motivated several research studies. These studies formed the MYRIAD (MY Resilience In Adolescence) Project that took place over the course of 8 years, delivering its key findings mid-2022.

School-based mindfulness training

Overall, the MYRIAD Project involved around 28,000 pupils from across 100 schools in the United Kingdom. The crucial question that the project addressed was whether mindfulness training offered by school teachers could improve the mental health of 11-14 year olds. To do so, 85 schools, which were considered representative of all UK schools, were randomly assigned into two groups: to either participate in mindfulness classes or receive social-emotional learning as it is normally taught in secondary schools. School teachers were the ones who delivered mindfulness classes having first received the training themselves. The study assessed pupils’ mental health and well-being using questionnaires, primarily looking at the one year after the mindfulness classes were delivered. The conclusion that MYRIAD drew was that offering mindfulness classes was no better than the usual social-emotional teaching for improving teenagers’ mental health. Despite that the effect of mindfulness classes was not superior compared to normal social-emotional education, the study found some positive secondary outcomes. Not only was there a reduction in the levels of burnouts among teachers but also the school climate had improved. An interesting finding was that mindfulness classes appeared to be most beneficial to older adolescents, compared to younger ones, suggesting that it required more developed meta-cognitive skills.

For the advocates of mindfulness, the results of the MYRIAD Project might seem disappointing. However, the findings need to be viewed in a broader context. Mindfulness classes were delivered by school teachers who were not professional mindfulness trainers. On top of this, teachers had other commitments to attend to, such as delivering mainstream classes. These reasons together could play into the lack of effectiveness regarding the mindfulness training. On the bright side, such large and well-executed studies are beneficial in showing what works and what does not before anything is rolled out universally. A one-size-fits-all approach to mental health is evidently not viable. As the authors of the study concluded, for the next generation of research it is important to understand what works and for whom – the approach that works for one group, may not suit others.

Credits

Author: Julija Vaitonyte
Buddy: Kim Beneyton
Editor: Ellen Lommerse
Translation: Brittany van Beek
Editor Translation: Wessel Hieselaar

Image by Silviarita via Pixabay

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