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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Young Offenders

Qualitative studies reported participants feeling less stressed, better able to concentrate, manage emotions and behaviour, improved social skills and that the interventions were acceptable to young offenders.

A scoping review

Last week (21 February 2018), researchers published an intriguing scoping review of Mindfulness-based interventions for young offenders.

The authors, Sharon Simpson, Stewart Mercer, Robert Simpson, Maggie Lawrence & Sally Wyke, are all Glasgow based and reviewed thirteen international studies of interventions with at least one of the three core components of mindfulness-based stress reduction (breath awareness, body awareness, mindful movement) which were delivered to young people in prison or community rehabilitation programmes.

The studies included: three randomized controlled trials, one controlled trial, three pre-post study designs, three mixed methods approaches and three qualitative studies. Overall, the interventions studies had delivered mindfulness interventions to a total of 842 young offenders aged between 14 and 23, almost all of them (99%) young men.

As regular readers will be well aware, young offenders as a group (especially those whose offending is persistent enough to result in them being sent to prison) often have a range of complex needs. They are a particularly vulnerable group, and effective interventions are needed to help them manage stress and improve cognitive and emotional skills.

Currently, the most researched interventions for those in custody are based on cognitive behavioural therapy principles. Although CBT has strong empirical backing, the evidence remains limited for young offenders and it is recognised that this approach may need supplementing. Recently, increasing attention has been placed on natural protective factors, individual strengths and positive treatment alliances

The researchers set out to examining the potential of mindfulness in this regard.

 

Mindfulness and young offenders

Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs), derived from Buddhist meditation practices and secularized for use in contemporary society, preferentially train attentional awareness, enhancing emotional and behavioural regulatory skills and generating a shift in one’s perspective of self. MBIs have a growing evidence base for use within clinical and non-clinical settings alike, improving both psychological functioning and wellbeing in people with chronic health problems. 

Systematic reviews, meta-analyses and randomized controlled trials (RCTs) suggest thatMBIs may be potentially useful in numerous
relevant domains, including the management of anxiety, stress, depression, trauma and addictive behaviours and substance misuse. 

Further, those studies that have included active comparator groups suggest that, in general, MBIs are as effective at improving mental health and wellbeing as other commonly used interventions in this context, such as CBT or antidepressants. In addition, systematic review evidence suggests beneficial effects from manualised MBIs on memory, some aspects of executive function (inhibition and set shifting), cognitive flexibility and meta-awareness. 

Based on this evidence, the researches argue that there are several reasons to hypothesize why mindfulness may have particular relevance for young offenders.

Findings

Eight of the ten quantitative studies measured self-regulation and emotional states. Five of these reported significant improvements in emotional stability and self-regulation ability.

Qualitative findings are based on participants’ collective experience of a variety of different mindfulness interventions. General themes revolved around two key areas.

The first was internal changes, such as participants feeling more relaxed, better able to manage stress, better self-regulatory skills, improved self-awareness and being more optimistic about future prospects. 

The second related to external changes, such as improved relationships, valuing kindness shown by the teacher and being part of a supportive environment in which they felt respected and valued. Participants also reported feeling empowered by having met the challenge involved in adhering to the mindfulness practices. They appreciated being part of the group; developed more positive relationships with staff, peers and family; felt more in control; and were better able to cope with difficult feelings and impulses. They especially appreciated being treated with care, respect and humaneness.  

In the main, participants, family and staff were enthusiastic about and supportive of the courses. However, two studies highlighted small numbers of participants being resistant to the meditative practices.

Conclusions

This scoping review evaluated the existing evidence for MBIs among young offenders. It demonstrated that the existing international evidence regarding the utility of MBIs in youth offending populations is limited and the optimal approach unknown.

A wide range of MBIs was used, and so it was not possible to identify an optimal approach in terms of content, dose or intensity.

Clearly, more detailed research is needed to demonstrate whether mindfulness-based approaches can be effective with young offenders.

However, it definitely seems worthwhile to test the assumption that by practising the core components of mindfulness, young offenders may experience improvement in psychological and emotional wellbeing and in behavioural functioning.

If you’re interested in mindfulness work with offenders, you might also be interested in the parallel Three Principles approach.

 

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