The mental health of teens around the world is under more stress than ever on the heels of the pandemic. Looking for a way to help, educators in the United Kingdom developed a large scientific trial. Dubbed My Resilience in Adolescence — or MYRIAD. One of the study’s aims was to see whether practicing mindfulness could improve young people's emotional well-being.

We’ve certainly heard a lot about mindfulness in recent years, but what exactly is it? Mindfulness involves trying to maintain a non-judgmental, moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment. Based on Buddhist practice, it’s sometimes suggested that practitioners watch or count their breaths while sitting with a straight spine and holding the intention of staying still.

The researchers suggest activities like sports, the arts, computer gaming and music could be used as vehicles to teach mindfulness skills.

It does seem like mindfulness might help calm adolescents and improve emotional wellbeing, and it has been found to to assist college students cope with the stress of exams. But the Oxford University researchers found that, for preteens and young teens at least, that was not the case.

The disappointing data were based on the results of five studies over an 8-year period and involved 85 secondary schools, nearly 700 teachers and almost 8,500 pupils. In the randomized controlled trial — which is considered the gold standard of scientific research — 41 schools continued with social emotional learning that was already part of their standard curriculum for students aged 11 to 14, while teachers at the other 41 schools were given training in teaching mindfulness and then gave their students 10 lessons of 30 to 50 minutes in length.

What did the researchers find out? After analyzing the results, the team concluded that mindfulness practice for the study's age group just didn’t appear to make a difference. After one year there was no evidence that school-based mindfulness training was any better than teaching as usual when it came to warding off mental health problems.

For those kids with existing mental health challenges, there was even more discouraging news. The research indicated that it might make their difficulties worse. Although there were no serious problems reported, it does suggest that future research should explore different approaches for these kids.

While analyzing their data the researchers discovered that the age of the students may have been a factor — the technique worked better for the older kids than the younger students. And that many of the kids simply didn’t like the mindfulness training.

“Most students didn’t engage with the program. On average, they only practiced once over 10 weeks of the course. And that’s like going to the gym once and hoping you’ll get fit. But why didn’t they practice? Why? Because many of them found it boring,” said Mark Williams, professor emeritus and founding director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, in a news briefing,

It’s interesting to note that, initially, the mindfulness program boosted teachers’ mental health and reduced burnout, as well as increased their positive attitudes towards teaching, but after a year those effects had mostly disappeared.

Although no serious problems were reported, mindfulness might make the difficulties of kids with mental health challenges worse.

What might promote mindfulness among kids? The researchers suggest peer-based approaches with older students giving the lessons. They also propose using activities like sports, the arts, computer gaming and music as vehicles to teach mindfulness skills.

Or maybe mindfulness training is just not the right avenue. “Instead of offering ways for kids to improve their mental training, maybe what we need to do is design schools so the whole school, the climate and the culture of a school actually support young people’s mental health and well-being,” suggested one of the lead researchers, Willem Kuyken, the Sir John Ritblat Family Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science at the University of Oxford.

Most educators will probably agree that Professor Kuyken’s suggestion is certainly worth more attention. Making sure kids get enough exercise is also likely to be beneficial.

If you are curious about whether practicing mindfulness might help you de-stress, the Oxford Mindfulness Centre offers several guided meditations you can try for free.

The study is published in the BMJ.