Huge trial finds mindfulness makes some teenagers’ mental health worse

Jules Evans
9 min readDec 9, 2022

Anyone hoping to ‘solve’ the mental health crisis should think very carefully: am I going to make it worse? Unfortunately, every decade a new intervention becomes the hot new thing, the magic bullet that is going to save the world, and the people promoting it become wide-eyed evangelists. ‘We are saving the world! We are doing such important work!’ Such is their enthusiasm, they never stop to ask, ‘is it possible this intervention will harm some people?’

When you look at the history of mental health, it is littered with failed interventions that turned out to do more harm than good.

Just a few months ago, one of the largest-ever mindfulness studies published its results. The MYRIAD study, led by Dr Mark Williams of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, took eight years, involved teams at six universities, with 100 researchers working with 28,000 students in 650 schools. It was a massive effort, to see if a mindfulness course could reduce anxiety and depression and improve outcomes in teenagers. What could be more important than that!

When it finally published its results in June, it found no evidence that the mindfulness course was any more effective than what the schools were already offering for social and emotional learning. Meditation only helped the minority of students who got into it and practiced it in their own time. Most students found mindfulness classes boring.

In fact, the mindfulness intervention actually made some young people’s mental health worse. This is from the paper:

Only for five of 28 secondary outcomes was there some evidence of a difference between the trial arms. Intervention arm students had higher self-reported hyperactivity/inattention on the SDQ subscale at both postintervention and 1 year follow-up, and higher panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive scores on the RCADS measure at postintervention, lower levels of mindfulness skills on the CAMM postintervention only plus higher teacher-reported emotional symptoms on the SDQ at 1 year follow-up only, suggesting that they are doing worse, although marginally, on these outcomes than the control arm.

Can you imagine if you’re one of the researchers working on the trial and, after eight years, that’s what you…

Jules Evans