A mindfulness-based intervention
for at-risk male youth
Dr. Tim Lomas
University of East London
●Concern about at-risk teenage boys
●Development of 4-week MBI
●8 boys aged 13-14 at school in East London
●Interviews pre and post intervention
●Grounded theory analysis
●Overarching theme of pressure
●MBI functioned as ‘pressure valve’
Males in ‘crisis’
●Despite structural advantages, males fare
poorly on numerous outcomes
●Poorer health and lower life expectancy (ONS, 2012a)
●75% of all suicide deaths (ONS, 2012b)
●67% of detained under the mental health act (NHS, 2011)
●95% of the UK prison population (MoJ, 2012)
●Outperformed in education at all levels (EHRC, 2011)
●A ‘widespread popular and academic
agreement that something is troubling men’
(McDowell, 2000, p.201)
●Reasons: complex and multifaceted
●Early theorising: biological ‘sex differences’
●Testosterone linked to maladaptive behaviours, such as
aggression (Book et al., 2001)
●More recently: social construction of gender
●Social learning theory
●Deleterious gender norms, e.g., toughness
●Associated with health-risk behaviours
●Masculinity as ‘risk factor’
●Toughness norms = ‘restrictive emotionality’
●‘Normative male alexithymia’ (Levant, 1998)
●Link to affect dysregulation (Addis, 2008)
●‘Externalising’ distress (Pollack, 1998)
●Gender differences in experience of distress
●Females more likely to internalise it as sadness
●Males more likely to externalise, e.g., as aggression
●Accounts for higher diagnosis rates for women (Kessler,
●SES affects mental health: poorest men almost x3 times
more likely to suffer CMD than richest (EHRC, 2011)
●At-risk youth: > 85,000 in UK (MoJ, 2012b)
●More vulnerable, with poorer outcomes
●Exposure to risk factors (e.g., exposure to violence)
●More liable to ‘hypermasculinity’ (to compensate for lack
of structural power, e.g., education, wealth)
Adolescence as critical period
●Gender becomes truly salient
●‘shaping orientations toward oneself and views of one’s
place in the social world’ (Barrett & White, 2002, p.451)
●Threshold (Lomas et al., 2013)
●Sudden acute pressure (circa age 13) to ‘be a man’
●Often linked to school transitions
●Emergence of maladaptive masculine behaviours
●But… creates opportunity to intervene
Summary of issues
(a) Males are liable to poorer outcomes
(b) Partly attributable to masculinity norms
(a) E.g., toughness fosters emotional disconnection
(c) At-risk youth especially vulnerable
(d) Adolescence: critical period
(e) Value of intervening in adolescence
Possible value of mindfulness
●Research with male meditators (Lomas et al.)
●30 men, aged 18+
●All had experienced difficulties with distress etc.
●Emotional re-connection through meditation
●Research with adolescents (Zenner et al., 2014)
●Meta-analysis: 24 relevant studies, n = 1348 students
●Between-group effect sizes: cognitive performance (g=
0.80), stress (g = 0.39) and resilience (g = 0.36).
●Need research on male adolescents
a) Can boys be taught to act in ways more
conducive to wellbeing?
b) Is it possible to design an intervention to
facilitate this behavioural change?
c) Can this intervention be explicitly targeted
towards at-risk male youth?
●Nine adolescent males aged 13-14
●8 = BME; 1 = white
●8 = born in London
●From inner city comprehensive
●One of the most deprived boroughs in London
●A ‘free’ school (i.e., free to set own curriculum)
●Judged by the school to be at risk of under-
achievement and/or exclusion in school
●Invited (not compelled) to participate. All agreed.
4 week intervention: week 1
●Mindfulness of eating (using chocolate)
●Goal setting: (a) intervention ground rules; and (b)
expectations/hopes for programme
●Teaching : mind populated by animals
●Breathing/counting meditation (also tracing index
figure round contours of other hand)
●Set homework: do both savouring and breathing at
least once during week
4 week intervention: week 2
●Check-in session: (a) what animal is your mind? (b)
what ‘colour’ is your mood?
●Reflections: sharing experiences of past week
●Guided body scan
●Set homework: do savouring, breathing and body
scan at least once during week
4 week intervention: week 3
●Reflections: sharing experiences of past week
●Teaching segment: thoughts as ‘bubbles’
●Reflection: experiences of the mind being unkind
●Set homework: practice one of the five mindfulness
activities each day
4 week intervention: week 4
●Reflections: sharing experiences of past week
●Teaching/reflection segment: responses vs reactions
●Did the course meet expectations?
●What did you find most helpful?
●What positive self-reflections can you take from participating?
●How can you use mindfulness going forward?
Data collection & analysis
●Individual semi-structured interviews
●With female researcher
●Pre and post intervention
●30 mins on school premises
●Questions about the intervention & wellbeing generally
●Grounded theory analysis
●Theory generated inductively through identification of
●Open, selective, then theoretical coding
Results: 4 meta-themes
●Pressure valves (i.e., mindfulness)
●Pressure to do well
●“You have to do GCSEs and if you do well than you can get
a good job and go to University but if you don’t do well,
[you] won’t be able to do much…”
●Resulting feelings of distress
●Sadness, well like, kind of like depressed…because in all
the subjects we have to do…the teachers keep saying
“work hard, work hard.”
●Wanting to preserve fun of childhood
●“most of the time I like playing with my console… and just
like having fun.”
●Gearing up for adulthood
●“I wanna be a friendly, loving, caring guy, cause it shows
a way of maturing, and like I’m ready for the future, cause
in the future you’re gonna have to get married one day,
and like, you’re gonna have to care.
●Pressure to not be ‘feminine’ (e.g., emotional)
●“Everyone in the school, like, they expect you to be, erm,
masculine, but there’s other boys out there, they are a bit
like feminine, and people judge them. There was one boy,
like everyone judges, everyone stays away from because
he’s a certain type of person, and that’s what I don’t like,
like if people judge you, that’s not good”
Mindfulness as pressure valve
●Hard to grasp at first
●“At first, I didn’t really understand it, so it was like,
‘What’s the point of this?’... But gradually it made sense,
cause it was like to help your mind focus.’”
●Soon appreciate potential
●“[The walking meditation] helped me realise things that
we take for granted…like some people can’t walk, and
because of the walking meditation you just think about
everything that you do!
3 main benefits of mindfulness
●“Maths is still like kind of tricky, but I think I’ve improved.
Now like, I can focus more”
●“[Others] say mean words to me, and I used to take it
really serious, but know I know the meditation, I [can] stop
overreacting if they’re just doing something to disturb me”
●Dealing with negative emotions
●“[Now[ I just don’t care what bad things happen to me… I
won’t feel sad or excited or maybe stressed”
Discussion: confluence of pressure
●Gender pressure : deleterious masculine norms
●E.g., pressure to not show vulnerability & emotionality
●Age pressure: adolescent threshold
●Caught between childhood and ‘being a man’
●School pressure: need to do well
●Possibly exacerbated in current climate
●Worries about jobs and future prospects
Discussion: value of mindfulness
●Assisting with emotional management
●Evidence of short-term development of EI skills
●Certain practices worked particularly well
●Practices that involved physical component (e.g., walking)
●Cf. Singh et al. (2003) and Zylowska et al. (2008)
●Brief, focused intervention
●4 weeks worked well, though question of durability?
●Can boys be taught to act in ways more conducive to
●Is it possible to design an intervention to facilitate this
●Can this intervention be explicitly targeted towards at-risk
●Answers: Yes, with caveats
●More data needed, especially longitudinal and triangulated
(i.e., teachers’ reports)
Thank you for listening!
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