Mindfulness Meditation Empowers Homeless Youth

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.

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  • Saul

    January 8th, 2013 at 11:08 AM

    I don’t in any way mean to be rude or dismissive of the good that this could bring about, but isn’t there anyone but me who think that this time would be better served with these children ensuring that they are receiving a strong education and job training skills to get them out of this homeless position that they have found themselves in? I mean, get them some food, get them some shelter, give them something to believe in. And THEN teach them about meditation. I just happen to think that this is too much for them when really more than anything most of them just need the basics and to be given faith that they will and can survive another night.

  • Charles A. Francis

    January 8th, 2013 at 9:01 PM

    Interesting article. I teach mindfulness meditation at a local homeless shelter here in Raleigh and it seems to help the clients tremendously.

    This particular shelter incorporates treatment for drug and alcohol dependency. It is about a 1-year program where clients learn basic living skills, and are encouraged to develop a support network in 12 step programs of recovery.

    We’ve found that the mindfulness meditation practice helps them become more focused and committed to their recovery. In addition, they seem to progress much faster.

    Charles A. Francis
    Author of “Mindfulness in the Workplace”

  • nate

    January 8th, 2013 at 9:10 PM

    @Saul:nah…education and food and shelter is important and in fact an essential need I agree.but all that comes after having a safe life,a life where the person is stable,a life where the homeless youth are not depressed,where they are not contemplating suicide.also,meditation and the methods used here ensure that these young people look for a better life and in course of it also get the education and are able to perform well at school.its an inclusive approach if you ask me!

  • langston

    January 9th, 2013 at 11:21 AM

    Well of course they need the basics, but don’t they too deserve to have other things in life too instead of only having to put one foot in front of the other and make it day to daY? I mean, this could be the one thing that many of them need to have hope for the future, a way to develop a life plan and discover a new way of living that provides them meaning and purpose. I think that just introducing some of them to a program like this will show many of them just how strong they are and the many positive things that they can achieve just through focus and dedication. I want to instill some hope in this generation having to grow up in this manner and to hopefully give them some resources that will allow them to one day prosper in a way that maybe their parents were not able to provide for them.

  • Marsten

    January 9th, 2013 at 10:39 PM

    Meditation can be largely helpful when faced with any difficulty.I can see this by my own experience with meditation.For homeless youth it is very easy to go down the wrong path and be involved with drugs,violence and what not.But meditation,if practiced the way it is meant to be,can help them see the real things they should be pursuing.It can relieve them of the mental blocks that they may have and could eventually help them get back on their feet and away from all the pitfalls!

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