Can school based mindfulness programs prevent mental health problems in adolescents?

Chief Investigator: Professor Tracey Wade

Funding Amount: $75,000

Recipient: Flinders University


Given one in four Australians aged 16-24 have a mental health condition1, schools are investing millions of dollars in programs that may enhance mental health (The Australian, 9.1.17, Schools invest in ‘wellness’ centres). However, current program developers of mindfulness are “flying blind” in trying to modify the robustly successful adult curricula to youth. This research will make a world-first contribution in identifying key ingredients needed for effective youth versions of mindfulness. This will assist schools in choosing evidence based programs matched to appropriate ages.

Research Outcomes:

Researchers: Professor Tracey Wade, Dr Catherine Johnson

Research Completed: 2021

Research Findings:

It has been suggested that early adolescents may receive particular benefit from school-based mindfulness programs given their capacity for abstract thought before social and academic stressors start to increase. Only four large tightly controlled trials have been conducted in mainstream secondary schools, with conflicting results. Two studies targeting mid adolescents (mean age 15.6) found improvement in depression and eating disorder risk factors but two studies focused on early adolescents (mean age 13.5) found no benefits. Our pilot study of a Belgian schools programme also suggested good improvements in mid but not early teens. Given the added difficulty of timetabling wellbeing programmes for older adolescents, this study sought to replicate these results in a large (fully powered) sample. This is the first study in the youth mindfulness field to directly compared effectiveness across age bands, and to measure different aspects of mindfulness to identify which elements are important to include.

Research findings Across two private and one public Adelaide schools, 434 male and female students took part in the 8-week programme during 2018-2019. No benefit was demonstrated in the older age group (N=267, mid-adolescents, mean age 15.5 years) in any of the mental health outcomes or in aspects of mindfulness itself. Younger teens (N=167, mean age 13.5 years) also showed no improvement in anxiety, depression or eating disorder risk and were mildly worse in wellbeing and two aspects of mindfulness (awareness of the environment, the ability to step back from unhelpful thoughts/emotions) at 3-month follow-up. For a small subgroup (both age groups combined) followed up for 9 months the pattern of mild deterioration was repeated. There was no benefit for males versus females, or for those with higher levels of anxiety, depression or eating disorder risk at baseline.

Key Outcomes: This study adds to the small but growing number of high-quality studies suggesting mindfulness programmes with early adolescents are not robust, with this approach needing further refinement before it can be supported as a worthwhile and effective mental health option in schools. This is an important finding given the enthusiasm for this approach currently outstrips the evidence base. Identifying key mindfulness skills matched to developmental age remains an important goal for future research.

Research Papers: Johnson, C. and Wade, T. A randomised controlled trial of an 8-week mindfulness program in early- and mid-adolescent school students: not the right model for young teens? Submitted to Behaviour Research and Therapy 14.1.20

Related Publications:

Future Outcomes:

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