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Are Mindfulness Claims Overstated?

…there is a danger that the benefits of mindfulness are being overstated, without the clinical data to support them. There are books on applying it to business leadership, to parenting and to weight loss. There are mindfulness exercises for children and guides on living with pain. There is no shortage of courses, books or even smartphone apps being offered to an enthusiastic public – and sometimes little way for people to tell whether they are authentic, quality-controlled and reliable – or on the fringes of new age crankism. Even the experts in mental health can occasionally overstep the mark.

Oxford University and the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) have worked on a 10-session online course, available for £60. On its website, the foundation claims that “the effectiveness of the online course is the subject of a highly significant research paper by Oxford University published in BMJ Open“. It adds: “The reported average outcomes for completers of the course show participants enjoying reductions of 58% in anxiety, 57% in depression and 40% in stress.”

That is true, but only to a point. The MHF website glosses over an important caveat in the BMJ Open paper. The authors, who include Prof Williams, point out in the paper that the study had no control group, meaning there was nothing to compare the course with. More research is needed.

Williams is acutely aware of the dangers of overclaiming.

“A lot of people think it will cure everything. But we know there is nothing that cures everything. There is some interesting work in psychosis, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia but it’s in its early days. There’s a lot of hype around mindfulness and we need to be cautious because it doesn’t serve our science or patients well if we’re overenthusiastic. We have to make sure the science catches up with the enthusiasm.”

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photo by premasagar


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