Mental health problems among homeless youth are nearly ten times the rates found in youth living in stable homes. Homeless youth, classified as children up to their early twenties, live in shelters, foster homes, juvenile detention centers, friends’ homes, couches, or even on the streets. Many of these young people have left their homes because of sexual abuse, physical abuse, violence, or other traumas. Because of their volatile pasts, they are more likely than other youths to have post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, or substance use problems. They are also at increased risk for suicide. Treating these young people is challenging because of the transient nature of their existence. Also, a large number of young people who have experienced betrayal and abuse have difficulty trusting authority figures of any kind, including therapists.
Addressing this problem of mental health and suicide among homeless youth was the focus of a recent study led by Linda Grabbe of the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University in Georgia. Grabbe wanted to see if mindfulness meditation (MM), a method of therapy that has been proven effective in treating many of the problems that these youths face, could be adapted and delivered in homeless shelters. Grabbe modified the Spiritual Self-Schema MM program and administered it to 39 young people living in a shelter. She evaluated the participants for resiliency, spirituality, mental health, and symptoms of psychological problems before and after the intervention.
Grabbe discovered that her unique approach was very effective at decreasing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress in the participants. She also noticed that levels of resiliency, which were high to begin with, were strengthened after the intervention. And although the participants did experience increases in spirituality, they did not report decreases in impulsivity. Some of the key elements of Grabbe’s modified MM included assigning a peer leader and providing three days of practice between sessions. Enlisting a team leader created a hierarchy within the loose social construct of a homeless shelter and empowered the leader. This led to more cohesion within the group, more motivation to teach by the leader and more compliance by the students. Also, having the time to practice new techniques increased self-esteem in all the participants. Overall, the results of this study have positive implications for modified MM. “Therefore, for homeless youth who are at such risk, MM may enhance resilience and translate into improved self-regulation, better control of psychological distress symptoms, and potentially a decreased likelihood of drug abuse,” said Grabbe.
Grabbe, Linda, Scott Nguy, and Melinda Higgins. Spirituality development for homeless youth: A mindfulness meditation feasibility pilot. Journal of Child and Family Studies 21.6 (2012): 925-37. Print.