Mindfulness courses can reduce anxiety, depression and stress and increase mental wellbeing within most but not all non-clinical settings, according to a new study.
Researchers also found that mindfulness may be no better than other practices aimed at improving mental health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness is typically defined as the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.
According to experts, in recent years it has become increasingly popular as a way of increasing wellbeing and reducing stress levels.
Dr Julieta Galante, from the department of psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, the report’s first author, said: ‘For the average person and setting, practicing mindfulness appears to be better than doing nothing for improving our mental health, particularly when it comes to depression, anxiety and psychological distress – but we shouldn’t assume that it works for everyone, everywhere.
‘Mindfulness training in the community needs to be implemented with care.
‘Community mindfulness courses should be just one option among others, and the range of effects should be researched as courses are implemented in new settings.
‘The courses that work best may be those aimed at people who are most stressed or in stressful situations, for example health workers, as they appear to see the biggest benefit.’
The NHS offers therapies based on mindfulness to help treat mental health issues such as depression and suicidal thoughts.
However, researchers say the majority of people who practise mindfulness learn their skills in community settings such as universities, workplaces, or private courses.
Many randomised controlled trials (RCTs) have been conducted around the world to assess whether in-person mindfulness training can improve mental health and wellbeing, but the results are often varied.
In a study published in PLOS Medicine, researchers from the University of Cambridge led a systematic review and meta-analysis to examine the published data.
The team identified 136 RCTs on mindfulness training for mental health promotion in community settings.
These trials included 11,605 participants aged 18 to 73 years from 29 countries, more than three-quarters (77%) of whom were women.
The researchers found that in most community settings, compared with doing nothing, mindfulness reduces anxiety, depression and stress, and increases wellbeing.
However, the data suggested that in more than one in 20 trial settings, mindfulness-based programmes may not improve anxiety and depression.
Researchers caution that RCTs in this field tended to be of poor quality, so the combined results may not represent the true effects.
For example, many participants stopped attending mindfulness courses and were not asked why, so they are not represented in the results.
When the scientists repeated the analyses including only the higher-quality studies, mindfulness only showed effects on stress, not on wellbeing, depression or anxiety.
They say the variability in the success of different mindfulness-based programmes may be down to a number of reasons, including how, where and by whom they are implemented as well as at whom they are targeted.
Dr Galante added: ‘If the effects of online mindfulness courses vary as widely according to the setting as their offline counterparts, then the lack of human support they offer could cause potential problems.
‘We need more research before we can be confident about their effectiveness and safety.’