A Recent Study Found a School-Based Mindfulness Program Doesn’t Work—Let’s Unpack That

Researchers and key figures reflect on the results and implications of one of the largest studies on mindfulness in schools ever conducted.

Adobe Stock/ Romolo Tavani

In July 2022, when the results of the 8-year study of mindfulness training of a cohort of students in British schools—called the MYRIAD project—were released, the headline in the Guardian read: “Mindfulness in Schools Does Not Improve Mental Health, Study Finds.” 

Full stop. 

Though the Guardian article went on to provide more nuance, the reading public sees seven years of complex painstaking work by a large group of dedicated people reduced to a single conclusion in a headline. That is what is to be expected. As the old newspaper saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” When results are simplified to this degree, though, it helps if we can remember to dive deeper to see the specifics of what was studied, and what continues to be learned as a result. Research is frustrating. It moves forward in fits and starts. If we are relying on it to always provide confirmation of what we already believe, we may miss the messages that suggest ways forward. Even in our own reporting at Mindful, we tend to focus on positive results, but results that do not confirm expectations are just as important, especially when the underlying research is robust, carefully designed, and making use of large sample sizes.

In the months since the MYRIAD report came out, I took the time to interview some of the key people involved and at the periphery to gather their view of what we can learn from this immense study. Before I go into what the interviewees had to say, it will help to look at this capsule summary.

The MYRIAD Project

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, MYRIAD researched whether mindfulness practice could help young people address the range of challenges and stressors they face in an increasingly complex world, that has resulted in as many as 1 in 5 teenagers experiencing mental health problems. They were asking: “How can we prevent mental health problems arising during adolescence and enable young people to enjoy good mental health?”

It involved several studies, published in a series of academic papers. These studies involved more than 28,000 children, 100 schools, 650 teachers and 20 million individual points of data. The main findings are published in five articles in a special issue of the British Medical Journal – Evidence-based Mental Health.

The research program was based on the idea that, “just as physical training is associated with improved physical health, mindfulness training is associated with better mental health outcomes. By promoting good mental health and intervening early, in early adolescence, we wanted to see if we could build young people’s resilience and help to prevent mental health problems developing.”

The central study was a large randomized, controlled trial involving 85 schools and 8376 early adolescents. It evaluated the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of a schools-based mindfulness training on risk-for-depression, social-emotional-behavioural strengths and difficulties, and well-being in 11-14 year olds

The mindfulness training was developed by the Mindfulness in Schools Project— developers of the widely used .b curriculum (pronounced “dot b”). It was taught by school teachers who had no previous experience of mindfulness, after they had first learned it for themselves via an eight-week course and then attended a four-day training on teaching mindfulness to students. MYRIAD compared the mindfulness training to current standard social-emotional teaching in schools and explored whether mindfulness training had wider effects on teachers’ mental health and school climate. It also explored the challenges of offering mindfulness training more widely in schools, and what is needed to do this well.

In this report, I’m expanding on the nuances and details underlying our earlier reporting on the MYRIAD results, which listed five takeaways from the MYRIAD work:

  • The mindfulness training employed in this study did not help young people with their mental health or well-being
  • The mindfulness study involved suggesting to students that they practice at home, which they did not do
  • The teachers themselves benefitted from the mindfulness training, but the intervention itself proved ineffective
  • The program showed an overall improvement in the “school climate” or the quality and character of school life, values, and relationships
  • It was further confirmed that mental health in adolescents is a growing challenge

All aspects of the 8-year program are outlined in detail on the MYRIAD website. An associated project, also funded by Wellcome, focused on public engagement activities, including a range of resources to engage young people with the ongoing research, integrate their perspectives into the project, and inspire interest in psychological science. As part of an effort to encourage young people to find out more about what they can do regarding their mental health, a group of students who took part in the trial helped make films that provides their perspective on mental health and the role of schools. All films can be seen on the Do-Nothing website.

Willem Kuyken: Teachers Themselves and the School Climate Benefitted the Most

Along with applied mindfulness pioneer Mark Williams, the project was led by Willem Kuyken, who is the Sir John Ritblat Family Foundation Professor of Mindfulness and Psychological Science, in the Department of Psychiatry, Oxford University; Principal Investigator, University of Oxford Mindfulness Research Centre; and the Director of the University of Oxford Mind