Using Mindfulness Techniques to Bolster Mental Health in Schools

By Jenna Wyman, CEI Intern

With one in five children in the United States likely to be diagnosed with a mental health or learning disorder, it is critical to find feasible and effective solutions to provide aid throughout their education and development (Vanderburg et al., 2020). However, there is a chronic lack of treatment and support for these youth. The universal implementation of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) may provide the needed solution to support children as they go through the mental struggles of adolescence. MBIs are rooted in Buddhist psychology and promote the ability to stay present with one’s experiences and to view them without judgement. They can include practices like meditation and yoga, activities that allow the practitioner to focus their attention and be present in the moment (Zenner et al., 2014).

Given the promising potential of MBIs, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has completed a systematic review of the effects of universally implemented mindfulness interventions on mental health outcomes within a school-based setting. The search identified 616 studies but only examined the 21 that met inclusion criteria. The meta-analysis focuses on four domains of mental health: anxiety, well-being, depression, and stress. This review aims to determine the most effective mindfulness programs to target certain outcomes to guide school-based intervention decisions. 

MBI Programs

As mindfulness has become a more popular practice over the past few decades, a number of programs have been developed to address this skill development through a systematic process. The most well known is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) intervention. This program consists of 8 weekly sessions of 2.5 hours and a full day of mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation. It focuses on learning how to practice meditation, to cultivate full body awareness, and to incorporate mindfulness into everyday activities such as eating and breathing (Zenner et al., 2014). A number of similar programs have arisen over the years, some putting more emphasis on the psycho-education aspect of MBIs, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Overall, these programs have been connected to general improvements in mental health as well as specific conditions such as PTSD, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Where do MBIs show promise?

1.Anxiety

This study examines 10 intervention approaches for the impact on anxiety in adolescents and young adults. While most of the programs in this review did not significantly reduce anxiety, there were some promising programs. The MBSR has the most significant results, followed by Master Mind and Mindfulness Training for Teens.

2. Depression

The eight examined interventions provide a bit more insight on MBIs’ efficacy for addressing depression and  youth mental health challenges. While the completed analysis does not offer many significant conclusions on how MBIs can effectively improve adolescent depression, there is promising data on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. However, the same positive conclusions can not be made for the effect of the MBSR approach on adolescent depression. From this review alone, it suggests that MBSR is not as effective in addressing depression as it is in other mental health struggles.

3. Stress

The results from the analysis of MBIs on stress provide the most encouraging results for the positive effect they can have on stress levels. Following the examination of eight interventions, there is a substantial list of effective approaches. The most significant results are found with the MBSR followed by Learning to BREATHE (L2B), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Youth COMPASS, and Mindfulness Training for Teens (MTT). These programs all share the overall goal of increasing social and emotional learning but differ from MBSR in that L2B, Youth COMPASS, and MTT are specially designed to address the needs of adolescents

However, it is also important to acknowledge all of these results are from short-term studies. More research is needed to determine the long-term impact of MBIs on stress and adolescent mental health.

What Can We Take Away From These Findings?

While the initial results from the systematic review are promising in terms of their potential positive impact on youth mental health, the results are limited in their overall significance. The wide range of timing, evaluation, and program requirements of the MBIs investigated in this review make it difficult to draw strong conclusions about their efficacy in promoting positive youth mental health. Further research and review is needed to better understand how much MBIs contribute to improved mental health. However, many of the programs showed promise, including:

While these results are preliminary, this meta-analysis shows that there is promise in using MBIs to address anxiety and depression, and that many programs are effective at reducing stress. The most successful programs targeted stress-related outcomes with the greatest support for MBSR interventions. With these encouraging initial findings, further research should be conducted to provide more conclusive and universally applicable results.

References

Bring mindfulness to your school (n.d.). Misp: Mindfulness in Schools Project. 

Dimheff, L., & Lineham, M.M. (2001) Dialectical behavior therapy in a nutshell. The California Psychologist, 34, 10-13.

Kiuru, N. (2017). The effectiveness of the mobile-based Youth COMPASS program to promote adolescent well-being and life-control (YouthCOMPASS). US National Library of Medicine. 

Hayes, S. (n.d.).  Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT). Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. 

What is Learning to BREATHE? (n.d.). Learning to BREATHE. 

Tacker, K. A., & Dobie, S. (2008). MasterMind: Empower Yourself With Mental Health. A program for adolescents. The Journal of school health, 78(1), 54–57. 

Vanderburg, J. L., Marraccini, M. E., & Litwin, S. G. (2020, July). Using mindfulness techniques to bolster mental health in schools. National Association of School Psychologist

What is MBSR?. (n.d.). Mindful Leader. 

Zenner, C., Herrnleben-Kurz, S., & Walach, H. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions in schools-a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 603. 



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