Mindfulness boosts student mental health during exams, study finds

25 Dec 2017

Mindfulness training helps build resilience in university students and improve their mental health, particularly during stressful periods of exams, according to research from the University of Cambridge.

The study, which involved just over 600 Cambridge students, concluded that the introduction of eight-week mindfulness courses in UK universities could help prevent mental illness and boost students’ wellbeing at a time of growing concern about mental health in the higher education sector.

University mental health services have experienced a huge surge in demand, with the number of students accessing counselling rising by 50% between 2010 and 2015, exceeding growth in student numbers during the same period.

According to the study, published in the journal The Lancet Public Health, the prevalence of mental illness among first-year undergraduates is lower than among the general population, but it exceeds levels in the general population during the second year of university.

“Given the increasing demands on student mental health services, we wanted to see whether mindfulness could help students develop preventative coping strategies,” said Géraldine Dufour, one of the report’s authors and the head of Cambridge’s counselling service.

Mindfulness, an increasingly popular method of training attention on the present moment, has been shown to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. Until now, however, there has been little robust evidence on its effectiveness in supporting students’ mental health.

The Cambridge students were randomly assigned to two groups. Both were offered access to the university’s usual support and counselling services, as well as NHS services. One of the two groups was also offered the mindfulness course, which consisted of eight weekly, group-based sessions, plus home practice including meditation, “mindful walking” and “mindful eating”.

Researchers found the mindfulness participants were a third less likely to score above the threshold commonly regarded as meriting mental health support. Even during the most stressful period of the year, summer exams, distress scores for the mindfulness group fell below their baseline levels, as measured at the start of the study. The students without mindfulness training became increasingly stressed as the academic year progressed.

Researchers also considered whether mindfulness had any effect on exam results, but their findings were inconclusive.

“This is, to the best of our knowledge, the most robust study to date to assess mindfulness training for students, and backs up previous studies that suggest it can improve mental health and wellbeing during stressful periods,” said Dr Julieta Galante, of Cambridge’s psychiatry department, who led the study.

“Students who had been practising mindfulness had distress scores lower than their baseline levels even during exam time, which suggests that mindfulness helps build resilience against stress.”

Prof Peter Jones, also from Cambridge’s department of psychiatry, added: “The evidence is mounting that mindfulness training can help people cope with accumulative stress.

“While these benefits may be similar to some other preventative methods, mindfulness could be a useful addition to the interventions already delivered by university counselling services. It appears to be popular, feasible, acceptable and without stigma.”


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