Call to action: Where to next?
The physicist Thomas Edison famously said it took many “failed” attempts before the light bulb was invented. He was making the point that scientific progress involves trial and error.
The burden of mental health problems is large, our best treatments are insufficient and prevention has eluded us. We ran a large-scale study, which provided no support for the mindfulness training we tested being effective. So, what have we discovered?
- Many things affect young people’s mental health: their environment (for example, poverty and deprivation); their school (for example, school climate); and individual differences (for example, girls are at higher risk of developing mental health problems than boys). Many other studies have also shown that poverty, genetics, family stress and exam stress can compromise mental health.
So, we need to focus on what we know supports resilience and mental health in young people, in terms of: policy and intervention on wider systems (for example, poverty and deprivation); and education policies and school structures that shape school climate.
- The mindfulness curriculum we tested was relatively brief (ten 30-50 minute sessions). Such a brief programme may be insufficient to create positive change. Schools should consider programs that are longer and are integrated into wider systems in their schools that support youth and teacher well-being.
- Implementing any social-emotional learning curriculum in schools requires committed staff, adequate resources, efforts to address misperceptions about mindfulness and social-emotional learning, and training and ongoing support of teachers. It may be that such curricula are only effective when all these conditions are in place.
- Mindfulness training improves teachers’ burn out in the short term and may also improve school climate. The next generation of research needs to consider how best to support teachers’ mental health and school climate, and in sustainable ways that create durable changes for both teachers and for the wider school.
- Among young people, one size doesn’t fit all. It is likely that different approaches will be needed for different young people, and indeed in different schools. Perhaps young people might learn key life skills best through what they like and are already doing: friendship, sport, music, gaming … Future research should consider our finding that among young people, one size does not fit all, and explore different support systems for different groups of young people.
- Mindfulness skills are associated with mental health, but we need a different approach to enabling young people to learn these skills and apply them in their lives.
- It is likely that if interventions are co-designed with young people, they will be more accessible, engaging and effective. We need to rethink who teaches these programmes and develop teacher selection and training that helps young people to learn these skills, and motivates them to continue these skills in their lives.