Mindfulness for students is a start — but it's not enough
Universities across the U.K. are giving students the opportunity to learn mindfulness skills to help combat stress. This is a good move but, on its own, it's not enough to address the endemic issue of mental illness among students.
Mindfulness, a practice all about paying attention to the moment and focusing your mind, is a popular way to reduce stress. There's plenty of research suggesting that mindfulness can lessen anxiety and depression and help with concentration.
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Now some universities around the U.K. are investigating mindfulness courses as a way to support students through stressful times. The University of Cambridge is offering an eight-week course which will allow students to incorporate mindfulness in activities such as eating raisins and brushing their teeth, as well as through meditation. Students will also be able to participate in group discussions and exercises.
Similarly Aberystwyth University is looking to train ambassadors in the skill of mindfulness so that they are able to hold lunchtime sessions with staff and students. Buckingham University has likewise committed to increasing the availability of mindfulness to students and promoting it through student support networks.
This news is welcome in the wake of disturbing National Union of Students survey outcomes which show that a vast majority of U.K. university students — 78 percent — have experienced mental illness at some point in the last year. In addition a third report having had suicidal thoughts.
Also unsettling is the fact that most students who reported distress did not seek help for it. Forty percent were wary of their university services and a third did not even know how to go about getting help if they ever needed it.
University students tend to be a young demographic. They are often leaving home for the first time and are navigating the stresses of new-found independence alongside their studies. These factors make them a particularly vulnerable group for mental illness. Research from Harvard Medical School suggests that mental illnesses usually emerge in individuals before the age of 25 and chronic stress from major life changes can increase one's risk.
Clearly universities have a big challenge in supporting their students. The numbers also show that there are serious problems in the way they are handling their responsibilities.
The integration of mindfulness within student life potentially provides an important path forward for a healthier, happier student body. For this reason universities taking steps to support students in this way should be applauded.
But not too much. While a study published in The Lancet last year found that mindfulness can be as effective as medication for treating depression, it's also the case, as the NHS advises, that different treatments work differently for different people. It's likely that mindfulness programmes will help many students through their distress but it is also likely that some will need additional, or different, support.
In order to deliver diverse services for a diverse student population, universities need to address limitations and shortages within their service delivery. A report from last year from the Higher Education Funding Council for England found that not only is demand for counselling increasing among students, they are also seeking help for more serious conditions. A Help Me Investigate study from 2013 showed that sometimes students are forced to wait for weeks before they can get help.
Universities can be a wonderful place for students to learn, thrive and make connections that last a lifetime. Finding that ideal experience, however, will involve undertaking serious work to support students. Mindfulness is a good start but it needs to go much further.