The Mindful Student Study
Type of research
The Mindful Student Study is the first randomised study of mindfulness delivered to University students in the UK, and one of the largest studies to be undertaken internationally. It therefore has the potential to be influential in the commissioning of new services to support the wellbeing of students in the UK and beyond.
Background and Rationale
University students show elevated levels of stress. In a 2015 survey of over 1000 UK students, 78% said they had experienced mental health difficulties in the last year and 33% had suicidal thoughts (National Union of Students, 2015). Although mental illness rates among freshers appear to be lower than those of the general population, they surpass general population rates when undergraduates get to their second year (Macaskill, 2013). A 2013 survey found that the biggest triggers of severe mental health problems were academic pressures (Kerr, 2013).
At the University of Cambridge, the University Counselling Service (UCS) and other support services have noted the constant increase in the proportion of students seeking help in recent years. For example, from 2013 to 2014 referrals to the UCS rose by 2%, and 44% more students pleaded special circumstances in exams. An effective preventative intervention is needed to help students cope better with academic life and develop resilience.
Mindfulness training has been shown to reduce stress and prevent depression in clinical and non-clinical populations (Gotink et al., 2015). It is popular among students and increasingly used to support them in the UK (Mindfulness for Students website). However, there is little evidence on the effectiveness of offering mindfulness training to this population, or of any adverse effects. A good-quality and adequately powered randomised evaluation including the wider spectrum of university students is needed to confirm previous findings, extend the follow-up period and provide a more complete view of the potential impact (positive and negative) of the provision of mindfulness training on university student life.
Study aims and hypothesis
The study aimed to evaluate whether the provision of a mindfulness course to well higher education students:
- Helps them to manage stress during the examination period
- Improves their mental wellbeing and resilience to stress up to one year later
- Reduces their use of mental health treatment and support services
- Improves their engagement with student life, including their academic performance
Our main hypothesis was that the provision of mindfulness training will reduce students’ psychological distress during the exam period in comparison with students who have not been offered this provision.
The study was a pragmatic randomised controlled evaluation with two parallel arms and a 1 to 1 allocation rate testing the superiority of mindfulness training provision to no provision. University of Cambridge students were randomised to joining the mindfulness course during the term they started or to university mental health provision as usual (those who were still students were offered the intervention a year later).
Mindfulness courses were offered for two terms before the study started to allow the mindfulness programme to establish itself before evaluating it and to collect feasibility and acceptability data. Interest in the pre-evaluation courses doubled teaching capacity. An opportunistic randomised evaluation was therefore considered reasonable.
A press release about the launching of the study was issued on the 29 May 2015. It was posted on the Cambridge University Facebook page generating 1800 likes and 300 shares in 48 hours. It was shared by the local BBC Cambridgeshire team on Twitter and Cambridge News published an article about it.
The study used social media to engage students. Facebook and Twitter active accounts were used to share study updates and show the research process in a transparent but easy-to-understand way. Contents related to topics such as student mental and physical health & wellbeing and UoC news were shared/posted regularly for the duration of the study. In order to avoid generating expectations about the study intervention, claims relating to the benefits of meditation, whether evidence-based or not, were not included. Facebook groups, pages and Twitter accounts displaying contents or events related to UoC students were also followed/liked.
Key findings and outputs
Galante, J et al. Effectiveness of providing university students with a mindfulness-based intervention to increase resilience to stress: a pragmatic randomised controlled trial.Lancet Public Health; 19 December 2017; DOI: 10.1016/S2468-2667(17)30231-1(PDF)