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Mental health - why ‘mindfulness lessons’ don’t work

October 17, 2022, 12:48 GMT+1
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  • Supporting students’ mental wellbeing is vital, says Gordon Cairns – but it’s not a task for enthusiastic amateurs...
Mental health - why ‘mindfulness lessons’ don’t work

In the pursuit of historical discovery, well-meaning amateur archaeologists in the 19th century took their picks and dug deep into the artefact-rich soil of Greece, Egypt and Afghanistan, uncovering treasures hidden from the world for millennia and bringing ancient history to life. Unfortunately, in doing so, their scattergun, destructive methods obliterated much more evidence about how the ancients lived than they uncovered, making their modern-day counterparts despair.

I couldn’t help thinking about those well-intentioned yet bumbling diggers when I read the recent report which suggests not only that whole class mindfulness lessons are at best merely somewhat effective in the short-term but, more worryingly, that they could even exacerbate existing mental health issues in our young people.

Time and resources

The My Resilience in Adolescence trial was based on five cluster studies involving over 8000 students and hundreds of teachers across more than 80 schools, who undertook mindfulness training. This involved delivering lessons on how to pay attention and how to understand and manage feelings and behaviour, with a view to boosting resilience to counter stressful factors, while promoting good mental health. Although to the non-professional this might seem an excellent use of valuable resources, in reality the report found evidence that this approach to building in resilience is weak. 

While for some, short-term benefits may arise, for younger children, or those with current or developing mental health issues, such lessons should be avoided. What’s more, the process studied in this trial required a significant resource and time commitment, involving teachers learning mindfulness themselves, then receiving training in how to deliver it to a whole class in 10 lessons of up to 50 minutes.

Unintended consequences

Writing in a recent issue of The New Scientist about universal mental health interventions in the classroom, psychologist and author Lucy Foulkes, who specialises in adolescent mental health, is not surprised by the disappointing outcomes these types of lessons bring. “This sounds excellent on paper, but the trouble is, it doesn’t work very well in reality,” she points out. “Research shows that when universal lessons do reduce symptoms of mental health problems, the effect is small: on average, teenagers who receive these classes only score slightly lower on questionnaires measuring anxiety or depression than those who don’t receive them.”

Dr Foulkes believes there is an inherent structural weakness at the core of universal mental health lessons: “The whole premise of these classes is that students should notice their negative thoughts and feelings, label them and then carry out exercises to try to accept or change them. But it can be really difficult to change how you think and feel, especially without one-to-one support.”

She adds,“School mental health lessons may be inadvertently teaching teenagers to ruminate on negative thoughts and feelings without giving them any real ability to manage these experiences, which could increase their distress.”

All this can only add to the sense of frustration for many teachers who read about the mental health crisis amongst teenagers in the media - and see the effects all too clearly in front of them, with outside support apparently not forthcoming.

Real solutions

However, Dr Foulkes does offer solutions which may be “more fruitful than universal approaches”. First, she suggests focusing additional funds and effort into one-to-one interventions, using people who are actually trained in offering mental health support. Then – whilst accepting that it will be a complex and expensive process – she advocates for more being done to reduce the issues which cause teenagers to become vulnerable to mental health problems in the first place, such as bullying or financial insecurity.

And here, teachers should take heart; because while we can flag up teenagers who are struggling with their mental health to the appropriate parties, it is not for us to solve complex problems we have not been trained in beyond signposting. Let’s not be the well-meaning amateurs who destroyed Homer’s Troy when they should have been trying to preserve it - and instead, stick with the support we know we are able to deliver, like a listening ear.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher who works in a unit for secondary pupils with ASD; he also writes about education, society, cycling and football for a number of publications