Can meditation help prevent suicide? The US Army is considering if mind training can boost mental resilience in military personnel.
Author: Sochara Chumnoeur
Title: Meditation as a Protective Factor Against Suicide In the US Army
Summary: We don’t often review qualitative papers produced from within the US military. However, the subject matter is so important that I wanted to draw some attention to this study. According to the World Health Organisation suicide is a significant cause of death globally, resulting in 800,000 fatalities each year; however, it is more common in some demographic groups than others. In the US, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people in the 15 to 35 age range, including around 250 active-duty soldiers each year. According to background materials, the US Army has been making significant efforts to reduce suicide rates for almost two decades. This paper reports that ‘Many commonalities exist in the analysis of demographics and characteristics of suicide decedent within civilian and military populations.’ The claim suggests that research into suicide prevention in a military context may benefit wider society and vice-versa. The main recommendation is to integrate a bespoke meditation method into the US Army’s daily fitness programme. In summary, the paper argues that meditation could improve soldiers’ mental fitness, leading to greater resilience and lower levels of suicide.
This paper was written before the most recent scientific reviews of meditation research; it also predates evidence that meditation training can expose practitioners to unwanted adverse effects. But none the less the questions that it raises and the trajectory that it suggests are important. A key point made in the study is
A recent reduction in force and budget have challenged the Army to find more efficient and effective methods to ensure readiness in its soldiers.
The idea that meditation offers a cheap and universal panacea is not without precedent and reflects some discussions about mindfulness from within social policy. The key questions to be asked at this early stage are linked to the theoretical understandings of suicide and meditation’s ability to meditate relevant mental traits and states. I’ve experienced meditation’s capacity to boost mental resilience; there’s plenty of individual studies that make this same point. But what meditation techniques might be appropriate for military personnel (or linked to suicide prevention more generally)? Is the non-judgement of medicalised mindfulness, or the nondual compassion of traditional meditation desirable training for combat troops? A final question is one most meditation scientists will be familiar with; how do you know if someone engages with meditation (in their mind). Physical training can be observed, but contemplative mind training is much more abstract to empirical measurement. Suicide is such a serious problem that any progress in prevention is welcome; I’d be interested to hear about any studies or anecdotes that could add to my understanding in this field.
Does compassion training lead to a lowering in self reported depression? This experiment involving second year medical students suggests it might.
Authors: Mascaro, J. S., Kelley, S., Darcher, A., Negi, L. T., Worthman, C., Miller, A., & Raison.
Title:Meditation buffers medical student compassion from the deleterious effects of depression
Summary: It’s no surprise to hear that the pressure from exams, and academic life in general, puts students under pressure, subjecting them to the effects of stress. This is a particular problem for medical students, given that compassion and attention to patient wellbeing are central to their professional development. Not only that but in professional practice, clinical staff may be frequently subject to the suffering of others. In an effort to study these and other issues, an experiment was undertaken to see if a course of Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) could be integrated into the curriculum of medical students in their second year of study. A second objective was to explore the effects of CBCT on the day to day functioning of the students, specifically looking at the ability of the intervention to raise compassion scores while lowering depression levels.
In a randomized, single-blind, wait-list controlled study, the students that were provided with CBCT saw an increase in compassion and a decrease in depression compared to control. Those students that had the highest self-reported levels of depression at the start of the experiment saw the most benefit from the intervention in terms of reduction to depression scores.
Can cognitive based compassion therapy (CBCT) help with depression?
Authors: Jennifer S. Mascaro, Sean Kelley, Alana Darcher, Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Carol Worthman, Andrew Miller, Charles Raison
Title: Meditation buffers medical student compassion from the deleterious effects of depression
Summary: The body of evidence demonstrating that compassion training offers significant benefit to its practitioners (and the wider community) is growing. This particular study investigated cognitive-based compassion training’s (CBCT) relationship to the wellbeing of medical students in their second year of training. Compassion is a particularly important issue for people working in clinical settings. Because of the nature of their activity, a degree of compassion is desirable if not essential. However, there is concern over issues connected to ‘compassion fatigue and ‘burn out’. A total of 59 students engaged in the research, those participants that received CBCT reported increased compassion and decreased loneliness and depression.
Perspective: Contemplative science, health psychology