MADISON – Navigating the transitional stress of starting college has been shown to affect young adults’ mental health. Many students are thrust into unfamiliar social situations, a new home environment, experience increased levels of academic pressure and are faced with having to make important life decisions for the first time. Layer on the continuing stressors of a global pandemic, racial acts of violence and war and it isn’t surprising that a mental health crisis exists on many college campuses today.
Since mental health problems during the transition to college can impact college achievement, graduation rates and labor market outcomes in adulthood, focus has been placed on addressing students’ mental health, with the burden often falling to university counseling centers who struggle to meet demand for services. Consequently, many institutions are exploring strategies to supplement these traditional efforts with an academic approach to support student mental health and well-being.
Beginning in 2016, a multidisciplinary team of scholars from UW–Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Virginia set out to develop a scalable, for-credit course that could become a general education requirement, similar to courses like composition or calculus that are required for first-year students on many campuses. Out of this effort, the Art and Science of Human Flourishing (ASHF) was developed. The course melds intellectual rigor for what constitutes a “life of flourishing” - a life filled with deep satisfaction, resilience, accomplishment and purpose - with semester-long experiential learning in awareness, connection, and other meditation techniques that support flourishing directly.
In promising new research published recently in the scientific journal Mindfulness, researchers from the Center for Healthy Minds at University of Wisconsin–Madison and collaborators at Pennsylvania State University and University of Virginia found that students of the ASHF course reported significantly improved mental health upon course completion, pointing to a potentially scalable curricular approach to promote flourishing in college students.
The multi-university study evaluated the impact of the novel course on primarily first-year students at UW–Madison, PSU and UVA in 2018 and 2019, in a two-wave matched controlled trial. Attention, social-emotional skill development, flourishing perspectives, mental health, health and risk behavior outcomes were measured with pre- and post-test surveys.
Past research on first-year college students has shown that Mindfulness Based Interventions such as awareness of breath and mindful yoga, as well as loving-kindness and compassion practice interventions to increase empathy, resulted in reduced distress and increased positive effects on depressive symptoms, when added onto existing curriculum or offered extracurricularly. However, these offerings can either be seen to distract from required academics, or present participation barriers to students who aren’t able to take on additional coursework.
ASHF takes a unique, rigorous approach in providing a dedicated course to address both an academic understanding of flourishing concepts through diverse disciplinary and historical perspectives on flourishing, as well as to strengthen skills through awareness, connection and other forms of meditation practices and connective interventions.
The semester-long course is structured along five main dimensions: Foundations of Flourishing (the science of personal transformation), Awareness (the importance of emotion, focus and mindfulness), Connection (qualities of compassion and belonging), Insight (crafting an individual vision and plan for flourishing) and Integration (pulling it all together). Each main dimension is further subdivided into three themes, each discussed for one week. Learning is supported by readings, lectures, written reflections, large and small group exercises, “meditation labs,” seminars and at-home practice. The intellectual foundation for the course is rooted in contemplative neuroscience pioneered at UW’s Center for Healthy Minds.
This method helps students achieve a fully integrated understanding as well as an individual roadmap for flourishing during and beyond the course. The team hopes that as a universal first-year requirement, ASHF could make big waves in supporting student mental health nationally and globally. According to Robert Roeser, overall study PI, the group hopes the course will simultaneously address the college mental health crisis while contributing to a fundamental aspect of general liberal education – helping them to explore meaningful, happy life paths that will contribute to society. “In the course, we aim to support students in seeing themselves and their lives as precious and as something that they can begin to contemplate and take active steps to shape in healthy and prosocial ways during their college years. We want to help them to find out for themselves what makes them come most alive, because as the great theologian Howard Thurman put it, ‘what the world needs most right now is for more people to come alive.’”
The research results support this hope - ASHF participants reported significantly improved mental health and flourishing, improvements on multiple attention and social-emotional skills such as attention function and self-compassion, and increases in prosocial attitudes like empathic concern and shared humanity, compared to control participants. Remarkably, the prevalence of clinical depression in ASHF participants decreased nearly in half from 33% prior to the course to 17% post-course and severe depression decreased by two-thirds (from 12% to 4%). There were no changes in these metrics for control participants. Lead author and Scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds, Matt Hirshberg, commented that “these findings are particularly encouraging because they suggest that the course was as useful for students suffering from more significant depressive symptoms, even severe symptoms, as it was for students with symptoms in the normative range. Thus, these data at least hint at the potential utility of this course as a universal preventive strategy for new college students.”
The researchers noted that many important questions remain. For example, there was no evidence of ASHF course impacts on health or risk behaviors such as sleep quality or alcohol use, which could indicate that these outcomes take more time to change, or that these behaviors are not affected by the course. Variable elements of instructor teaching style as well as the inability to randomly assign study participants mean that additional research with tighter experimental control is necessary. The researchers are currently analyzing additional data collected during the COVID-19 pandemic for further insights about course impacts during the first two years of that period. At a time when rates of mental health concerns are at historic levels among adolescents, this research provides initial evidence that the ASHF course may be a promising curricular approach to improving mental health and flourishing in college students. Richard Davidson, Founder of the Center for Healthy Minds and a co-author of this report, expressed his aspiration that “in the near future, every student at UW-Madison would 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.