A team of researchers, led by Darren Dunnings from the University of Cambridge, conducted a study exploring the effects of Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) on adolescent’s mental health. The meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, assessed randomized control trials (RCTs), considered the ‘gold standard’ for evidence, significantly contributing to the growing body of mindfulness research.
“There are a number of rationales for introducing mindfulness to young people, including enhancing core cognitive skills to support academic and social functioning,” Dunnings and his colleagues write. “Indeed, childhood and adolescence may be a particularly valuable time to practice mindfulness as self-regulation and executive functioning develop markedly across this period.”
Results of a previous meta-analysis on the effects of MBIs for youth suggest improved psychological symptoms, attention, cognition, stress, and resiliency. However, these studies have failed to distinguish between types of control groups used (e.g. passive comparisons – such as no intervention – or active comparisons). For mindfulness, an active comparison would be a situation similar to the treatment group without the ‘active’ ingredient of mindfulness. This oversight could cloud results as it cannot be determined if mindfulness is causing improvements or if they are, for example, related to meeting with a new adult outside of the classroom in a new group setting.
“In the case of MBIs for children and young people, the process to date has rarely moved beyond early-stage evaluations,” Dunnings and the researchers write, “only about 30% of current studies have randomized participants to condition and around 50% have used a comparison condition.”
The enthusiasm surrounding MBIs as an intervention and preventative method for adolescent mental health has grown over the past four decades. While the buzz of mindfulness has grown, research has arguably lagged behind. The aim of the current study was to conduct a definitive evaluation of state-of-the-art research on MBIs with children and adolescents.
After assessing 33 RCTs, 17 with active control groups, the researchers organized outcomes based on the following categories: Mindfulness, Executive Functioning, Attention, Depression, Stress/Anxiety, Negative Behavior, and Social Behavior. Dunning and his team found that across all studies, regardless of the type of control group, those receiving MBIs showed significantly more improvements than adolescents in control groups for the outcomes of Mindfulness, Executive Functioning, and Attention.
In comparison, when analyzing the 17 studies with active control groups, the categories with higher outcomes for MBIs were Mindfulness, Depression, and Stress/Anxiety. Categories of Negative Behavior and Executive Functioning did not show a significant improvement when these studies were examined separately from the pool of 33.
The discrepancy between outcomes of active and passive control groups may suggest other factors of mindfulness studies are influencing outcomes. This highlights the relatively early stage of current mindfulness research and the need for well-designed future studies to inform practice with adolescents.
“Even though RCTs are the gold standard research design, there are still relatively few mindfulness studies with children/adolescents that adopt them, testifying to how early along the intervention development trajectory MBIs for youth are,” the authors write.
However, the findings of this analysis are encouraging, Dunning and colleagues write, “given that MBIs are hypothesized to operate through improvements in both mindfulness and cognitive processes that can have a downstream effect on arguably more distal mental health and wellbeing outcomes.”
Dunning, D. L., Griffiths, K., Kuyken, W., Crane, C., Foulkes, L., Parker, J., & Dalgleish, T. (2018). Research Review: The effects of mindfulness‐based interventions on cognition and mental health in children and adolescents–a meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. (Link)