Repackaging Buddhism as mindfulness has caught support for school counselling trailing in the slipstream. Meanwhile the government appears torn between promoting meditation or disorder diagnosis. Mental Health Today meets the man behind the mindfulness in schools movement, Richard Burnett.
The government is set to confirm the content of its planned compulsory mental health lessons any day now. But many are under the impression such a curriculum is already in place – such has been the publicity generated by the mindfulness movement penetrating classrooms across England and Wales. The Mindfulness in Schools Project alone has seen 400,000 children trained to date, and its founders hope to reach a million pupils within the next five years.
"What about the children that mindfulness can’t help?"
Sessions are part-subsidised through private donors, but schools still need to provide a contribution themselves to visiting mindfulness teachers they host. With budgets so tight, it’s perhaps somewhat surprising that the sector’s commitment to the practice has increased since the economic crash of 2008 and the subsequent age of austerity.
So how can the success be explained? Richard Burnett, a teacher by background who co-founded The Mindfulness In Schools Project, is the first to acknowledge the limitations the technique provides. “The health warning on mindfulness is that I wouldn’t say it is for everyone, and I would say that there are serious mental health conditions which require medication and very specialist care. Mindfulness can sit alongside those medicated interventions, but they are very important, and we would never wish to claim that mindfulness is a replacement for those things.”
Education Minister Damian Hinds is among those to admit that mindfulness is perhaps ‘not for him’, telling Channel 4 News this month it’s not something he practices personally, despite repeatedly fronting packaging promoting its benefits to children. Burnett defines mindfulness as the capacity to “know how to shift from being reactive and impulsive to being more balanced and measured in the way you respond to difficulties” and it’s easy to see why some educators might be receptive to anything that strengthens children’s sense of self-control.
Weak and strong silences
Burnett acknowledges the technique’s outcomes could be exploited. “A reduction in oppositional behaviour is an attractive benefit for school teachers. But it’s one that we also handle with tremendous care because what you don’t want mindfulness to become is a sort of discipline mechanism: ‘Learn mindfulness because it’ll teach you to shut up more quickly.’ When it’s used in a power relationship between a teacher and class, that is what the researcher Helen Lee would call a ‘weak silence’; an ‘imposed silence by the teacher’, rather than a strong silence the children choose and want to take part in.”
Exponents say mindfulness can help with "behaviour" and four other core areas: cognition, emotional and social learning, physical health, and mental health – though not all facets of mental health. “There are a number of areas that mindfulness is showing itself to be effective in, including managing anxiety, rumination and what I would probably call more low mood than depression,” continues Burnett. “If you are suffering from clinical depression, then medication is certainly a route for you. There’s a lot of research going on at the moment about the balance between medication and mindfulness but I think what’s really important at the moment is [explaining that this is] a school intervention. We’re not talking about a clinical intervention in a school context. Yes, that can happen, but what we’re talking about is really a toe in the water introduction to mindfulness skills. More as a preventative measure, than as a clinical intervention.”
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Part of Burnett’s remit is to raise awareness of fundraising initiatives, such as an upcoming conference fronted by Ruby Wax, to generate more finance for higher take up of classroom mindfulness. He would welcome a similar cash injection for school counsellors, however. Many have been sacrificed over the last decade, leaving children with severe conditions exposed to isolation and at risk of deterioration. 50 percent of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14, with 75 percent by age 24. One in 10 children have a diagnosable mental health disorder – that’s roughly three children in every classroom.
“There is such a need for counsellors and schools have got a challenge to decide where they spend what little money they have. We’re there to try to persuade them that mindfulness is a good investment but I wouldn’t pretend that there aren’t other very good investments. A school counsellor would be a first base. Training for staff in mental health first aid would be another thing that people are increasingly doing. There are a range of things that schools can do, but we just hope that mindfulness is considered in that range because of the benefits it brings not just to the children but to the teachers.”
The Mindfulness in Schools Project trains all its visiting teachers in mindfulness before they are licensed to train others. This give the scheme credibility, and has the attractive benefit to government of supporting teachers with their own mental health, at a time when thousands are leaving the profession siting burnout. Such is the current support for mindfulness, the cost to schools may soon fall to low as £5 per child. At a time when social media seems to be the only show in town when it comes to media narratives about young people’s mental health, demand for a low-cost, soft and non-threatening response has never been higher.
Mindfulness has carved out something of a name for itself as perhaps the most wholesome, palatable intervention on the mental health menu. This, too, is a relatively new phenomenon. Rooted in Buddhism, the movement has worked hard to repackage itself as ‘secular’, something that remains key to acceptance within most mental health circles in the UK.
“Mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfulness based cognitive therapy are secular applications of Buddhist psychology.” Buddhists believe that nothing is fixed or permanent and that change is always possible. The path to enlightenment is through the practice and development of morality, meditation and wisdom. “As long as it was shackled to the Buddhist stuff, which I love and which I enjoy, it was never going to really get very far, because it would have too much baggage with it.”
Now backed by leading academics from Oxford to Boston, Burnett has succeeded in converting doubters in their droves. There’s an irony here in that the majority of Buddhist communities do not seek to proselytise (preach and convert). But that’s irrelevant to the thousands of children who have enjoyed and benefitted from eight-week sessions carefully crafted to “be as enjoyable and engaging as possible.” The earlier question hangs though: what about the children that mindfulness can’t help?
Burnett tells the story of visiting one school where a girl he was teaching stayed behind. She raised an issue far more common than some of those associated with social media, but with a far lower profile currently: psychological abuse within the family. “She had a very difficult relationship with her mother, and her mother was screaming at her the whole time. Whilst this girl was sharing with me her experiences and I was sharing with her mindfulness techniques she might use to manage those situations, it was quite quickly passed on to the designated safeguarding lead, just to check that things were ok at home. We couldn’t possibly offer that support as an organisation; these are the cases that a school will manage.”
Ultimately, many mental health challenges remain a school responsibility mindfulness can’t solve, and yet they exist in a vacuum of vision and resources. When it comes to children’s mental health, we have as much to learn as we do to teach.