Calm in the Storm

A new study by a UM researcher and others shows meditation therapies can help incarcerated youth.

By Marie Guma-Diaz and Annette Gallagher
UM News

MIAMI, Fla. (November 06, 2013) — More than 100,000 youth are held in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers across the United States.

Research has shown that the development and persistence of antisocial behavior prevalent among youth offenders is the result of an ongoing interplay between psychosocial adversity and deficits in cognitive control processes, particularly attention.

Now, an intervention that combines behavioral therapy and mindfulness training (CBT/MT) called Power Source, offers hope. It has been shown that participation in the program has a protective effect on youths’ attentional capacity, which may lower anti-social behavior, according to a new study published online, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The study is the first to demonstrate efficacy of a CBT/MT intervention for attentional functioning in high-risk incarcerated youth.

“Mindfulness meditation is often characterized as being comprised of two components: self-regulation of attention and non-judgmental awareness”, said New York University College of Nursing (NYUCN) Senior Research Scientist, Noelle R. Leonard, the study’s principal investigator. “The practice involves training youth to attend to something as simple as the sensations associated with breathing. While our minds will invariably wander to other thoughts or get distracted by things in the environment, by repeatedly returning attention back to the breath in a non-judgmental way, we are building attentional capacity to interrupt the cycle of automatic and reactive thoughts.”

The study, followed 267 incarcerated males, ages 16 to 18, over a 4-month period. The overwhelming majority of these youth have experienced significant childhood psychosocial hardships--including exposure to violence, poverty, and physical and emotional abuse by their primary caregiver.

The findings show that high-stress period of incarceration led to declines in cognitive functions such as attention, explains Amishi P. Jha, associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami and co-author of the study.

“Cognitive control processes like attention are involved in decision making and emotion regulation,” said Jha. “With degraded attention, the chances of impulsive and risky decision making, as well as emotional reactivity are greater.”

However, the CBT/MT intervention group showed significantly less of a decline in attentional task performance as compared to the control group. Moreover, within the CBT/MT group, the attentional task performance among those who practiced outside of intervention sessions remained stable compared to those who did not practice outside of the intervention sessions. These findings indicate that a multi-session CBT/MT intervention can be effective in limiting degradation in attentional performance in incarcerated youth, thus providing a protective effect on offending youths’ functional attentional impairments during incarceration in a high-security urban jail. The study is the largest controlled study of mindfulness training for youth to date.

“Mindfulness training helps youth consider more adaptive alternatives. It creates a gap between triggers for offending behavior and their responses. They learn to not immediately act out on impulse, but to pause and consider the consequences of a potential offending and high risk behavior,” noted co-author Robin Casarjian of the Lionheart Foundation who developed the Power Source intervention.

When asked about their experiences applying what they learned, many of the young men provided positive feedback. One such comment from a 17-year-old study participant was: “Meditation helped me calm down and pay attention, clear my mind because I have ADHD. Stops all the thoughts. I can just focus.

Researchers from New York University College of Nursing (NYUCN), the University of Miami, and the Lionheart Foundation in Boston, participated in the study titled “Mindfulness Training Improves Attentional Task Performance in Incarcerated Youth: A Group Randomized Controlled Intervention Trial.” The research was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Additional authors who contributed to the study include: Charles M. Cleland, PhD, Marya V. Gwadz, PhD, and Zohar Massey from NYUCN; Merissa Goolsarran, and Cristina Garcia from the University of Miami; and Bethany Casarjian Ph.D., from the Lionheart Foundation in Boston.

Annette Gallagher can be reached at 305-284-1121.