While perhaps not at the level of a craze, mindfulness is a practice that has developed a bridgehead into schools in recent times. I don’t want to single-out individual schools because they clearly have the best of intentions, but if you do a quick Google news search, you will find plenty of examples where mindfulness is linked to general wellbeing and the reduction of stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation derived from the practices of Buddhism but intentionally shorn of its religious overtones. A recent review article for Perspectives on Psychological Science sounds a loud note of caution. According to the authors, mindfulness research has been plagued by poor methodology and the potential harm caused by mindfulness practices has not been adequately researched (in another sign of methodological problems, a large systematic review of the field was recently retracted by the editors of PLOS One).
It may at first sound baffling that sitting very still and emptying your mind could incur harm. Perhaps the most obvious negative impact is the one that attends all alternative therapies – opportunity cost. For instance, if you think mindfulness is the solution to a mental health problem, you may not make use of other approaches with a proven track record such as aerobic exercise.
However, you may find it surprising that there is potential for direct harm caused by the mindfulness activities themselves. Such meditation-related ‘adverse effects’ may include, ‘psychosis, mania, depersonalization, anxiety, panic, traumatic-memory re-experiencing, and other forms of clinical deterioration.’
Unfortunately, we do not know enough about the potential for such adverse effects because best research practice is often not followed in mindfulness studies. For instance, studies often rely on subjects spontaneously volunteering information on negative experiences rather than systematically setting out to collect this information and this is likely to lead to an underestimate of any potential problems.
It is unclear how this relates to the kind of mindfulness practiced in schools. It seems unlikely to me that practices that I have seen reported by newspapers, such as giving students a couple of quiet minutes before a test, could lead to serious adverse effects. Indeed, the neurological evidence that the Perspectives on Psychological Science authors point to as perhaps explaining some of these negative effects seems to relate to more extended practice of meditation techniques.
However, there is also growing evidence that adolescence is a time of continued and unfinished brain development. It therefore seems plausible that young people may be more vulnerable to any adverse effects from mindfulness training. The fact that we lack evidence at this stage does not mean that the practice of mindfulness is completely safe.
Mindfulness, in its secular incarnation, is also a psychological therapy and, as such, something quite different to what teachers are trained to deliver. Would teachers be aware of any potential negative consequences of this treatment? Would they recognise such consequences if they saw them? Is this really the core business of teaching?