Mindfulness training can help support students at risk of mental health problems, according to a new study.
While anxiety and depression among first-year college students is lower than the general population, it increases during their second year, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge in the U.K.
The researchers note that the number of students accessing counseling services in the U.K. grew by 50 percent from 2010 to 2015, surpassing the growth in the number of students during the same period.
There is little consensus as to whether students are suffering more mental disorders, are less resilient than in the past, or whether there is less stigma attached to accessing support, the researchers noted. Whatever the reason, mental health support services for students are becoming stretched.
“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, head of the university’s Counseling Service.
A total of 616 students took part in the study, randomized into two groups. Both groups were offered access to comprehensive centralized support at the University of Cambridge Counseling Service, in addition to support available from the university and its colleges, and from health services, including the National Health Service.
Half of the students — 309 — were also offered the Mindfulness Skills for Students course. This consisted of eight, weekly, face-to-face, group-based sessions based on the book “Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World,” adapted for university students.
Students were encouraged to also practice at home, starting at eight-minute meditations, and increasing to about 15 to 25 minutes a day. They also were encouraged to try other mindfulness practices, such as mindful walking and mindful eating.
The other half of the students were offered mindfulness training the following year.
The researchers then assessed the impact of the mindfulness training on stress during the main annual examination period in May and June 2016, the most stressful weeks for most students. They measured this using the CORE-OM, a generic assessment used in many counseling services.
The study found that the mindfulness course led to lower distress scores after the course and during the exam term compared with students who only received the usual support.
Mindfulness participants were a third less likely to have scores above a threshold commonly seen as meriting mental health support, the study found.
Distress scores for the mindfulness group during exam time fell below their baseline levels — measured at the start of the study, before exam time — while the students who received the standard support became increasingly stressed as the academic year progressed, according to the researchers.
The researchers also looked at other measures, such as self-reported well-being. They found that mindfulness training improved well-being during the exam period when compared with the usual support.
“Students who had been practicing mindfulness had distress scores lower than their baseline levels even during exam time, which suggests that mindfulness helps build resilience against stress,” said Dr. Julieta Galante from the Department of Psychiatry at Cambridge, who led the study.
“The evidence is mounting that mindfulness training can help people cope with accumulative stress,” added Professor Peter Jones, also from the Department of Psychiatry. “While these benefits may be similar to some other preventative methods, mindfulness could be a useful addition to the interventions already delivered by university counseling services. It appears to be popular, feasible, acceptable and without stigma.”
The study was published in The Lancet Public Health.
Source: University of Cambridge