Photo Credit: Lesly Juarez via Unsplash
Joint U of T and York study suggests that online mindfulness-based interventions may reduce student depression, anxiety, and stress
Jennifer Zhong, Associate News Editor
In recent years, mental health has become an increasingly important concern at universities and colleges. This past year, post-secondary students not only faced the usual academic pressures, but also additional stressors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent studies have shown that university students without pre-existing mental health concerns are more likely to suffer from declining mental health than before the pandemic. With the online setting, accessing mental health support has become more difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in widespread campus closures both internationally and across Canada, and universities are having to alter their delivery methods of mental health services in order for them to be more easily accessible in this new online schooling environment.
Mindfulness-based interventions: A possible solution?
A team of researchers at York University led by York professor and psychiatrist Dr. Paul Ritvo believes that online mindfulness-based interventions could be the answer. “Student mental health is going in the wrong direction,” he says, “[which] motivated us to intervene in these online studies.” The study evaluated the efficacy of an eight-week Mindfulness Virtual Community (MVC) program in reducing student depression, anxiety, and perceived stress, and improving mindfulness. The web based MVC program is guided by mindfulness and cognitive therapy principles, and it shows promising results in reducing perceived stress.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a practical short-term form of psychotherapy aimed at helping people develop skills and strategies for becoming and staying healthy. Essentially, it seeks to address emotional distress by removing frictional thoughts, which arise when one becomes emotionally distressed. CBT is one of the most successful psychological intervention strategies currently being studied. Importantly, the third trial occurred during York University’s labour strike, resulting in a disrupted campus very similar to what is currently happening around the world during this pandemic.
The intervention consisted of 12 modules, each focused on a different topic to do with student mental health determined through focus groups. These included topics such as procrastination, healthy eating, and healthy sleep. Students were also invited to participate in an anonymous discussion board and confidential group video conferences with a moderator to discuss the topics. Finally, students took part in mindfulness video modules, a form of meditation or repetitive action to help them think about their actions more carefully and clearly, as well as to change cognitions where necessary.
Researchers found that the intervention was able to significantly reduce student depression and anxiety, as well as increase quality of life and mindfulness during normal conditions. During the disrupted campus, the researchers found that the perceived stress level, a more immediate measure, was significantly reduced, but not other factors. Dr. Ritvo suggested that it may be due to both the control and intervention groups feeling less stressed, as their exams and papers were on hold due to the labour strike.
Ritvo also remarks that there is more procrastination going on, both during the disrupted campus and currently during the pandemic. “There’s something about the disruption that makes people take longer to get around to whatever they’re supposed to do,” he says. However, as familiar as procrastination is for undergraduate students, Ritvo warns that it is a very potent psychological problem. “Avoidance is the fuel of anxiety,” he says. “As soon as you start avoiding something, you’re giving yourself a no-confidence vote”.
Advantages of web-based intervention
Ritvo believes that the online approach allowed them to reach people more easily in a more responsive way. In fact, the study found that the option that involved no personal contact at all was more effective than ones that involved personal contact. “Students don’t necessarily want to see a person if they can reduce their distress, improve their mental health on their own,” he says. In addition, it is completely confidential and eliminates the need to enter a psychological distress waiting room. “There’s a certain kind of possible stigmatization that happens just by virtue of [entering the waiting room].”
Mindfulness, COVID-19, and the future
Although there are a lot of parallels between York’s disrupted campus and the COVID-19 pandemic, Ritvo warns that the analogy only works to a certain degree. “There’s other distress associated with the pandemic… COVID is a strange combination of restriction and threat.”
Not only are students dealing with academic stresses, but they are also experiencing the threat of contracting or spreading the virus to older relatives, as well as the uncertainty of how long the pandemic will last. To address the different geographical locations and needs, an online intervention method could be a good investment.
Looking to the future, Ritvo thinks that all universities should adopt similar programs for mental health support. He notes that they could be more cost-effective than paying one-on-one counsellors, and are proven to reduce student depression, anxiety, and stress.
Ritvo also suggests that universities use randomized controlled trials to decide which programs are actually effective when conveyed to student bodies to decide which ones to adopt, and to translate their programs into more languages for greater accessibility. “People should not have to adjust to a language other than the ones they choose to speak… it’s harder to get [effective] intervention that way.”
In short, mindfulness meditation comes from the increasing view of the body as multi-faceted, and the emphasis of a healthy lifestyle for mental health. Although more research should be done to determine which approach is the most effective, mindfulness meditation is certainly a viable option for reducing student depression, anxiety, and stress.