How sitting still and closing our eyes could heal SA’s mental wounds
A study shows transcendental meditation has a dramatic effect on students with post-traumatic stress disorder
Remarkable success among a small group of Johannesburg students could point the way to healing mental scars that afflict an estimated one in four South Africans.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) was involved in the study, which took 34 students with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression – conditions that are often linked – and taught them transcendental meditation.
After three-and-a-half months, most of them had dramatically reduced PTSD symptoms, and their depression also improved.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Reports, was the first of its kind to show how transcendental meditation can reduce PTSD in university students.
Sadag chairperson Zane Wilson said: “This study shows that there are new tools available for [mental health] professionals to add to their tool bag.”
An international research team of seven scientists and psychologists conducted the study among 68 students at the University of Johannesburg.
They all had a score of 44 or more on their psychopathy checklist (PCL-Civilian) test, and a clinician had confirmed a diagnosis of PTSD. A PCL-C score above 44 indicates likely PTSD. A score below 34 is under the PTSD threshold.
Half of the students were enrolled in the Maharishi Institute of Management in Marshalltown, where they were taught transcendental meditation, while the other half received no treatment. The meditation practice involves the use of a mantra for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day while sitting with the eyes closed.
The study showed a rapid and significant reduction of symptoms in the test group, according to lead author Carole Bandy, professor of psychology at Norwich University in the US. Results were stable over time.
“A high percentage of young people in South Africa, especially those living in the townships, suffer from PTSD,” said co-author Michael Dillbeck, from the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa, US.
“To become successful students and productive members of society, they absolutely need help dealing with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Our study shows, that after three months of meditation, this group, on average, was out of PTSD. It offers a way for others to effectively deal with this problem.”
An estimated 25% of the SA population has PTSD, according to Eugene Allers, past-president of the South African Society of Psychiatrists. Estimates put the same figure in the US at 8%.
Symptoms of the condition include nightmares, flashbacks to traumatic events, anxiety, fear and hyper-vigilance. Sufferers also report emotional numbness, anger and violent behaviour, as well as abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Sadag interviewed and tested students for the study, and retested them after 15, 60 and 105 days. Within two weeks, the transcendental meditation students showed a significant drop of more than 10 points in their PTSD symptoms. They also found relief from depression, judged by Beck Depression Inventory scores.
By 105 days, the average group score for the transcendental meditation students was below the PTSD threshold of 34, according to the PCL-C test.