By Emma Young
Recent studies of mindfulness schools programmes for teenagers have produced mixed results, with some failing to find benefits, even when extra features were added to try to make them more effective. But given the demonstrated benefits of mindfulness training on stress and wellbeing in adults – and the urgent need to find ways to reduce stress and prevent depression in teenagers – it’s not surprising that researchers are pursuing work in the area.
Advocates of mindfulness for kids may, then, take some comfort from a new study in Developmental Science that found an 8-week training programme improved emotion processing in 16-18-year-olds. In theory, this might reduce their vulnerability to depression, write the researchers, from Bangor University, UK.
The study was not large: it involved just 40 sixth-form pupils (aged 16 to 18) from north Wales. Twenty-one pupils from two schools acted as controls, while 19 from two other schools formed the training group. Regular teachers from these schools delivered the “Foundations” version of the .b mindfulness curriculum, originally developed by the Mindfulness in Schools Project for busy adults, and which consists of eight 50-minute sessions (the researchers said they chose this programme to “reflect the maturity of the age group targeted for this intervention”).
At the start and end of the study period, all the pupils completed a number of questionnaires, including the Perceived Stress Scale, a self-assessment of empathy, and a version of the WHO Well-Being Index. The researchers also used electroencephalography (EEG) to provide a brainwave measure of the teenagers’ sensitivity to happy, sad and neutral male and female faces.
After the training, the mindfulness group did not score higher for empathy or lower for stress than the controls. But they did report feeling greater well-being. And the EEG data showed that, unlike the controls, they sustained their sensitivity to the faces that had happy or sad expressions, rather than becoming habituated to them.
“Tentatively, we can interpret the findings as suggesting that mindfulness practice, which encourages curiosity and exposure to emotion without judgement or reactivity, can help maintain attention on socially relevant stimuli,” the researchers write.
According to the so-called Emotion Content Insensitivity model, depression is characterised by a lack of response to both positive and negative emotional stimuli. So, in theory, maintaining a sensitivity to happy and sad faces may reduce these pupils’ vulnerability to depression, the researchers argue.
It has to be said that there are a quite a lot of “maybes” in the conclusions of this study. And while there were some potentially encouraging trends in the data (in relation to empathy, for example), only a few of the positive results were statistically significant. Also, the final assessments came soon after the training finished, so there’s no way of knowing how long the slight improvements shown by the mindfulness group would have lasted.
Still, “we hope that future work will build on these initial findings and explore the long-term effects of mindfulness training on adolescents,” the researchers write.
Of course, every teacher and parent would like to see effective interventions to reduce stress and the risk of depression in teenagers. But whether mindfulness is the answer is yet to be demonstrated.