Mindfulness and wellbeing lessons can make school pupils even less happy, experts claim

'We seem to be saying that some emotions are dangerous for children... I think it’s pathologising them'

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The Independent Online

Giving pupils lessons on happiness and wellbeing could do them damage and make them even more unhappy, a group of leading academics have said.

As schools and mental health campaigners place increasing emphasis on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness exercises, one school of thought suggests the younger generation are being brought up to think of happiness as something that cannot be inherent, but must be taught.

Speaking to TES magazine, Pooky Knightsmith, vice-chair of the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, said such exercises could be actively harmful for those who are particularly vulnerable or have a history of trauma.

“If a child is suffering abuse at home, being given space and time for thoughts to drift through your head isn’t necessarily good,” she said. “Schools need to be aware of the potential risks, even with the most seemingly nice of interventions.”

Ashley Frawley, a senior lecturer at Swansea University and the author of Semiotics of Happiness, told the magazine: “Happiness becomes not something that sneaks up on you – something you might find when you’re looking at a sunset – but something you have to work at.

“People are going into schools and encouraging young people to think that happiness is quite difficult, and you have to meditate and so on to get there. 

“It’s a complete misunderstanding of how human emotion works,” she said.

This term, the Department for Education invited bids for multimillion pound contracts to introduce mental-health training in more than 200 schools.

The move comes amid growing concerns for increasing mental health problems in children and young people, with many schools highlighting a lack of provisions to help those already in need of support.

Responding to a survey last month, teachers from across the country said they had seen children as young as four suffering from mental health problems such as panic attacks, eating disorders, anxiety and depression.

Exams-based pressure, internet-induced insecurities and poor quality sleep have all been cited as potential contributors towards a rising number of diagnosable mental illnesses seen in children.

Mental health charity YoungMinds urged the government to address what they called a “mental health crisis” within school classrooms, but some academics argue that schools are in danger of having money and attention spent in the wrong areas, tapping into some “spurious” programmes designed to target popular wellbeing lifestyle trends.

“Schools are spending so much on these things, and some of them are really, really spurious,” said Kathryn Ecclestone, a visiting professor at the University of Sheffield who is involved in researching the subject.

“People can just set themselves up as wellbeing consultants, and some of these are snake oil,” she said.

Ian Morris, Wellington head of wellbeing at Wellington College, was the teacher who first developed happiness lessons, back in 2006. But he agrees with Dr Frawley that an excessive emphasis on happiness above all other emotions can be damaging for pupils.

“We seem to be saying that some emotions are dangerous for children,” added Ian Morris, head of wellbeing at Wellington College. “I think it’s pathologising children.

“Saying, ‘Oh, God – anxiety’s bad, and we must eliminate that from children’s experience,’ is really absurd, and patronising as well. It’s easy to do quite a lot of damage with this.”

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