Students of innovative course report significantly improved mental health and flourishing

Students go up a red and white staircase

A new study by the UW-Madison Center for Healthy Minds and its collaborators has shown that coursework can produce positive mental health outcomes for students. Photo: Althea Dotzour

Coping with the transitional stress of starting college can challenge the mental health of young adults. Pushed into unfamiliar social situations and new home environments, students face increased academic pressures and the responsibility of making important life decisions for the first time. Add in the ongoing stressors of a global pandemic, acts of racist violence and war, it is not surprising that a mental health crisis exists in many colleges.

To combat this crisis, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds have contributed to the design of an innovative course which gives students evidence-based tools to protect and improve their mental health.

promising new insights recently appeared in the magazine mindfulness found that students who participated in the course reported significantly improved mental health upon completion. Remarkably, the prevalence of clinical depression was reduced by almost half and major depression by two-thirds among the participating students. There were no changes in these metrics for the control participants. At the same time, course participants reported significant gains in thriving—deep contentment, resilience, achievement, and purpose. These results point to a potentially scalable curriculum approach to foster college student thriving.

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“These results are particularly encouraging as they suggest that the course was just as useful for students with more pronounced depressive symptoms, even severe symptoms, as it was for students with symptoms in the normative range,” she says Matt Hirschberg, lead author of the study. “Hence, these data at least suggest the potential utility of this course as a universal prevention strategy for new college students.”

Beginning in 2016, a multidisciplinary team of scholars from UW-Madison, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Virginia set out to develop a credits course that could become a general educational requirement, similar to courses such as composition or calculus required for Beginning-year students are required at many locations.

This effort brought the art and science of man flourishing (ASHF) course. The curriculum combines intellectual rigor that explores the sources of deep contentment, resilience, achievement, and purpose with semesters of experiential learning in awareness, connection, and other meditation techniques that directly support thriving.

In 2018 and 2019, primarily freshmen from UW-Madison, PSU and UVA enrolled in the course in a two-wave matched controlled trial. Researchers surveyed students before beginning the course and again after completion on a range of factors including attention, development of social-emotional skills, thriving prospects, mental health, health and risk behavior outcomes.

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The course is structured around five themes: Foundations of Emergence (the science of personal transformation), Awareness (the importance of emotions, focus and mindfulness), Connection (qualities of compassion and belonging), Insight (creating an individual vision and plan to flourish ) and integration (bringing everything together). The course includes readings, lectures, written reflections, large and small group practices, meditation “laboratories”, seminars and home practices.

The intellectual basis because the course is rooted in the contemplative neuroscience developed at the UW Center for Healthy Minds.

This method helps students achieve a fully integrated understanding as well as an individual roadmap for thriving during and after the course. The research team hopes that the course, as a universal first-year requirement, could make big waves in supporting the mental health of students nationally and globally.

“Our goal is to help students see themselves and their lives as something worthwhile and something to think about during their college years and actively take steps to shape in a healthy and prosocial way,” she says Robert RoeserProfessor of Human Development and Family Studies at Penn State University and Principal Investigator.

The research results support this hope. In addition to fewer symptoms of clinical depression, participating students reported significantly improved mental health and fulfillment, improvements in alertness and self-compassion, and increases in prosocial attitudes such as empathic concern and shared humanity compared to control participants.

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The researchers note that many important questions remain unanswered. For example, there was no evidence that the course affected health or risky behaviors such as sleep quality or alcohol consumption, which may indicate that these outcomes take longer to change or are unaffected by the course.

Researchers are currently analyzing additional data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic to gain further insight into price impacts during the first two years of this disruption period. At a time when the prevalence of mental health problems among adolescents is reaching historic levels, the study offers hope that university curricula could help promote the mental well-being of students.

Richard Davidsona UW-Madison professor of psychology, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds and co-author of the report, hopes that “in the near future every student at UW-Madison will have the opportunity to take this course. ”

This work was supported by generous individual donations to the Center for Healthy Minds, a 2019 National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation postdoctoral fellowship (Matthew Hirshberg), the Bennett Pierce Chair in Care and Compassion (Robert Roeser), and the Contemplative Science Center at the University of Virginia .

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