MBCT Helping Students to Deal with Life at College.

This coming academic year, it seems that the student experience may be more isolating than ever before.  And this may mean that mental wellbeing is more of a problem for students.

Now, I believe that “prevention is the best form of cure”… so just like the US military, who use mindfulness training  to reduce the possibility that their personal will develop PTSD,  it seems to make sense to provide students with mindfulness training ahead of time.

In this post I am looking at two studies investigating the positive impact of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) upon students.


First, a study from Bristol university, published in Education Research International to measure the efficacy of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) on medical students. https://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2019/march/mindfulness.html

In this trial, the students were required to undertake MBCT training for two hours each week and commit to 30-minutes of daily home practice. MBCT adds mindful awareness to traditional cognitive therapy techniques, to help subjects change not only what they think about, but also how they process incoming information. It teaches participants how the mind works, how stress impacts one’s life, and gives them an awareness of stress triggers, the signs of stress symptoms, coping techniques, meditation practice and the importance of self-care.

In this trial, upon follow up, the students described:

  • improved empathy and communication skills
  • an ability to notice their own thoughts and feelings
  • improved ability to better manage their workload
  • a new ability to notice automatic judgmental thinking (such as not being good enough) without identifying with these thoughts
  • enhanced learning skills – using the mindfulness practices to refresh and regain concentration during long days of study
  • an ability to steady themselves during stressful situations in clinic or during exams

The researchers concluded that “MBCT had helped the students to: reduce anxiety, excessive worry, negative thought patterns and to improve resiliency to stress, emotional wellbeing and professional development.”

Dr Alice Malpass, Research Fellow in the Bristol Medical School and co-author of the paper, said: “This study has shown how mindfulness can help students who might be struggling… to find new ways of relating to the difficulties that arise in their clinical work, studying and wellbeing”.


Now let’s look a study by the University of Cambridge, published in The Lancet Public Health (Dec 2017), where the wellbeing impacts of MBCT were measured using standardised test procedures.


In this trial, the researchers measured the mental wellbeing of over 1000 students and then gave half of them an eight-week mindfulness course.  They measured the stress levels of the students prior to the mindfulness training and then during their exam periods in comparison to the control group.

After the training, the “Mindful Group” showed lower significantly stress levels and the effect was long-lasting: –

  • They were a third less likely to less likely demonstrate stress levels above the threshold normally seen as meriting support.
  • Their stress levels at exam time peaked at levels that were actually below those before taking the course – this suggests that the mindfulness training had a long lasting effect to increase their resilience against stresses.

“The evidence is mounting to show that that mindfulness training can help people to cope with accumulative stress.   It appears popular, feasible, acceptable… and without stigma.”  said Professor Peter Jones – Professor in Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge.


Now to quantify the problems that mental wellbeing poses to young adults in education, here are some findings from a yougov poll in 2017:

  • Over 1 in 4 (27%) of students report a Common Mental Disorder (CMD) higher than in whole pop – 19% male v 34% female
  • Of these 77% have symptoms of depression and 75% have symptoms on anxiety (– about 50% have both)
  • 6 in 10 students (63%) say they experience stress interfering with their daily life and  performance
  • Causes of stress: 77% “fear of failure; 71% course work; 39% employment prospects; 35% family, 23% relationships and 23% friends
  • 31% of students say they are lonely

And from other research:

  • At 16 years:  70% are regularly sad or anxious; 22% everyday (Barnardos)
  • 16 years stress factors: school (83%); future (80%) (then home, bullying, weight) (Barnardos)
  • FE Students: only 9% confident about their exams (PushOn/Ryman)
  • FE Student stress factors: themselves (70%); teachers (68%); parents (39%) (PushOn/Ryman)

Wow, three quarters of students have anxiety; and about two thirds says that stress is interfering with their lives and their performance. It seems that pressure to meet their own expectations and to meet the expectations of others is a significant driver. And nearly one third are lonely at college.

So, we can see that starting at college can be a difficult time:  perhaps moving away from supportive structures; feeling stressed by course work and feeling like they are struggling in comparison with others who look to be doing fine (…whatever they are feeling inside); finding new friendships; and dealing with their own expectations and the expectation of others… it looks like these are all draining the pools of resilience within even the most self-confident and positive students.

Given these figures it suggests that many students will be struggling to learn (or to continue to learn) throughout their course…  and will struggle to perform well in exams – imagine how much better they would do if we could help to reduce these problems.

I notice that in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA, mindfulness training is part of the undergraduate medical curriculum but sadly, such an idea has yet to be implemented in the UK despite recommendations from the General Medical Council (GMC), who called for the use of mindfulness training to increase wellbeing and resilience to stress of students.

So, it is clear that the mental wellbeing of young adults in education is a significant problem. Yet the two studies above demonstrate the value of preparing students with a course in MBCT.

If someone in your family is planning to go off to college, or if they’re already at college, and you believe that they would benefit from trying the Rezl MBCT foundation course then please email us. Rezl is our smartphone app that includes a complete MBCT foundation course and a toolbox with specific toolbox sessions on dealing with starting college and dealing with stress and pressure

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