Mindfulness Classes Fail to Deliver

Leo Hynett

Mindfulness has been celebrated by many as a way to manage stress and anxiety, but its effectiveness is heavily reliant on consistent and repeated engagement from those using it. Online mindfulness classes became increasingly popular during the pandemic as we grappled with feelings of stress and isolation, but how effective are these one-size-fits-all solutions?

Mindfulness classes

With mindfulness ballooning in popularity over the past few years it was unsurprising to see it find its way into the classroom. A study spanning 8 years and including ​​more than 28,000 students sought to examine whether mindfulness classes are actually beneficial. It was hoped that leading mindfulness sessions for teenagers would help them manage the stresses of school, but the sessions were found to be less effective than hoped. The sessions did help some pupils and improve the overall atmosphere and culture in the schools, but the differences were small and not clinically relevant.

Interestingly, there was an unexpected side effect for teachers: those who were involved in the training ‘reported lower levels of burnout, particularly feelings of reduced exhaustion and depersonalization – although most effects washed out after one year.’

Unfortunately, many pupils simply found the mindfulness classes ‘boring’. If students aren’t interested and engaged, the practice falls at the first hurdle. Students may also feel mindfulness is a bit of a silly concept – especially in the wake of the pandemic, something so small can feel like trying to stick a plaster on a gaping wound.

Dr Dan O’Hare from the British Psychological Society commented:

‘It is important not to view mindfulness sessions as a panacea, and as an “off the shelf” product that can just help teenagers and their teachers to become “more resilient”, without appreciating all the other influential factors, such as the school environment.’

Mindfulness isn’t for everyone, and nor are the pre-recorded guided sessions and apps used to support it. Some people find workbook-led mindfulness more effective, while others prefer to attend guided group sessions in person. Mindfulness can be guided or simply a state of reflection that one can employ at any time during the day without the use of external guidance (though the latter is much trickier). The most important element is repetition; if you don’t practice regularly, you won’t see results.

Making students attend weekly mindfulness classes is like simply dropping them at the door of a gym once a week and hoping they’ll get fit. Just because a student is in the right place, it doesn’t mean they’re engaging. It’s also very difficult for teachers to monitor and support engagement in mindfulness classes.

Can mindfulness work?

If you regularly engage with it and take it seriously, absolutely. The self-regulation skills that mindfulness teaches can reduce the risk of mental ill health and promote well-being. However, the benefits of mindfulness develop incrementally, so it requires a lot of commitment before results are felt.

While the trial of mindfulness classes showed them to be impractical on a wider scale, some individual pupils did find them beneficial. This showed that, while trying to teach every pupil is impractical, there could be benefits for future students if it were applied on a case-by-case basis or made available as an optional class.

Some anecdotal evidence suggests that mindfulness can be useful for younger pupils and help reduce disruptive behaviour. While these impacts may not be clinically significant, they’re significant to the individuals in question.

Consistent use of mindfulness apps has been found to be beneficial, but the requirement to pay for ad-free full versions of many of these apps throws up barriers to entry for those who can’t afford them. Some wellbeing apps offered their premium versions for free during the pandemic with some offering exclusive deals to those working in the healthcare sector. However, this window has now closed and premium prices are back up.

At a time when people are struggling to afford the necessities and some carers are even skipping meals, it’s tough to see mindfulness support locked behind paywalls.

Free access to these apps for those on low incomes could be helpful. This would be difficult to regulate and implement, but it is something the leading mindfulness companies could afford. Mindfulness is a thriving industry and meditation app Calm made $7.5 million in March 2022 alone. It’s not just the mindfulness business that’s booming – the wider complementary and alternative medicine market is estimated to reach $404.66 Billion by 2028.  

One potential solution to the challenge of getting mindfulness support to the young people who want it could be making these apps free to schools. This would mean students could sign up if they feel it would be beneficial to them without the need to pay. If this were the case, students would also be able to engage with mindfulness exercises without fearing ridicule from their peers who may think negatively of the practice.