When university students learn specific techniques for managing stress and anxiety, their well-being improves across a range of measures and leads to better mental health, a new Yale study finds.
The research team evaluated three classroom-based wellness training programmes that incorporate breathing and emotional intelligence strategies, finding that two led to improvements in aspects of well-being. The most effective programme led to improvements in six areas, including depression and social connectedness.
The researchers, who reported findings in the 15th July edition of Frontiers in Psychiatry, said such resiliency training programmes could be a valuable tool for addressing the mental health crisis on university campuses.
‘In addition to academic skills, we need to teach students how to live a balanced life,’ said Emma Seppälä, lead author and faculty director of the Women’s Leadership Program at Yale School of Management. ‘Student mental health has been on the decline over the last 10 years, and with the pandemic and racial tensions, things have only gotten worse.’
Researchers at the Yale Child Study Center and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence (YCEI) conducted the study, which tested three skill-building training programmes on 135 undergraduate subjects for eight weeks (30 hours total) and measured results against those of a non-intervention control group.
They found that a training programme called SKY Campus Happiness, developed by the Art of Living Foundation, which relies on a breathing technique called SKY Breath Meditation, yoga postures, social connection, and service activities, was most beneficial. Following the SKY sessions, students reported improvements in six areas of well-being: depression, stress, mental health, mindfulness, positive affect, and social connectedness.
A second programme called Foundations of Emotional Intelligence, developed by the YCEI resulted in one improvement: greater mindfulness – the ability for students to be present and enjoy the moment.
A third programme called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which relies heavily on mindfulness techniques, resulted in no reported improvements.
In all, 135 Yale undergraduate students participated in the study. Across campuses, there has been a significant rise in student depression, anxiety, and demand for mental health services. From 2009 to 2014, students seeking treatment from campus counselling centres rose by 30%, though enrolment increased by just 6% on average. Fifty-seven per cent of counseling centre directors indicated that their resources are insufficient to meet students’ needs.
The researchers say resiliency training tools can address the overburdening of campus counselling centres directly. ‘Students learn tools they can use for the rest of their lives to continue to improve and maintain their mental health,’ said co-first author Christina Bradley,‘ a PhD student at the University of Michigan.
Researchers administered the training sessions in person, but the courses can also be taken remotely.
‘Continually adding staff to counseling and psychiatric services to meet demand is not financially sustainable and universities are realising this,’ Seppälä said. “Evidence-based resiliency programs can help students help themselves.’
Davornne Lindo, a member of the Yale track team who participated in the SKY Campus Happiness programme, said practising breathing techniques helped her to manage stress from both academics and athletics. ‘Now that I have these techniques to help me, I would say that my mentality is a lot healthier,’ Lindo said. ‘I can devote time to studying and not melting down. Races have gone better. Times are dropping.’ Another participant in the SKY programme, Anna Wilkinson, said she was not familiar with the positive benefits of breathing exercises before the training, but now uses the technique regularly. ‘I didn’t realise how much of it was physiology, how you control the things inside you with breathing,’ Wilkinson said. ‘I come out of breathing and meditation as a happier, more balanced person, which is something I did not expect at all.’
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