Non-Traditional Therapies in Forensic Populations: Benefits of Human-Animal Interaction, Art Therapy, and Meditation-Based Interventions

By A. M. Foerschner
2012, Vol. 4 No. 10 | pg. 4/4 |

In 1978, Charles Alexander of the Maharishi University of Management launched an extensive cross-sectional and longitudinal study of the effects of Transcendental Meditation as practiced by inmates at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute – Walpole. Working within a framework that finds that offenders generally occupy lower levels of self-development, defined by numerous characteristics including impulsiveness, aggression, and inability to appropriately handle stress, Alexander hypothesized that inmates who participated in a Transcendental Meditation program would show decreased psychopathology and increased personality development and consciousness. Subjects included 160 male inmates, with the experimental group completing the TM Program of instruction and then, ideally, meditating independently twice a day for 20 minutes per session. Results from the experimental, meditating group showed a significant reduction in negative affect, manifested as anxiety, aggression, impulsivity, and depression as well as significantly improved displays of positive affect, prosocial motivation, and consciousness (Alexander, Walton, & Goodman, 2003).

Alexander continued and expanded his study to include 271 male inmates from the same maximum-security facility, some new to TM, others continuing their practice from the previous study who were, then, considered advanced subjects. After approximately 15 months of practicing TM, inmates in the experimental group, again, showed significant decreases in aggression and anxiety as well as symptoms of schizophrenia and also tested as acquiring higher levels of consciousness. Within the author’s framework of self-development, advanced TM subjects progressed approximately two stages to a level that is actually beyond what is achieved by the average American and made as much or more progress than the typical college student does in 4 years in a timeframe approximately two-and-a-half years shorter (at ~1.5 years of the offenders meditating regularly). This advanced level of self-development showed as increased responsibility, communicativeness, self-respect, and self-monitoring (Alexander & Orme-Johnson, 2003). Again, these results all show promise for treating depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders in offenders as well as the effects of prisonization and, some might argue, Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Similar results have been generated by studies that evaluated more specifically the effects of meditation-based interventions on substance use and anxiety disorders. Bowen et al. (2006) conducted a study at a minimum-security jail with male and female inmates in an effort to determine the acceptability and effectiveness of Vipassana meditation (VM) on problematic substance use and psychosocial outcomes. During a 15-month period, nine 10-day, gender-segregated VM courses were evaluated, and 78 participants completed all of the measures through the last test that was conducted 6 months post-release. Results revealed in the VM group significantly decreased substance use and fewer psychiatric symptoms on the 3-month post-release measure as well as greater optimism and internal locus of control regarding problematic alcohol use (Bowen, et al, 2006). Simpson et al. (2006) found that Vipassana meditation was also effective in decreasing the use of illicit drugs and alcohol in incarcerated individuals who were co-morbid with marked symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is supporting evidence for the positive implications of meditation-based interventions in treating offenders who suffer from anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and substance abuse as a result of self-medicating to treat symptoms of anxiety.

Discussion and Concluding Remarks

Human-animal interaction, art therapy, and meditation-based interventions have all clearly been shown to have positive outcomes in treating affective, anxiety, and substance use disorders as well as the effects of prisonization in forensic populations. Human-animal interaction succeeds in assisting offenders to achieve higher levels of positive affect and lower levels of anxiety, depressive symptoms, aggression, and social withdrawal. In an unsympathetic environment, human-animal interaction provides offenders with a safe place to express affection, develop prosocial behaviors, and a find sense of purpose through working with a program that benefits the community. Art therapy also provides offenders with a safe place for expression and has the unique ability to evade resistance from those who do not wish to openly engage in therapy. Decreased negative affect including symptoms of depression and anxiety are further benefits of art therapy in addition to the encouragement of prosocial behaviors that result from collaborative art projects. Meditation-based interventions show incredible promise for decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety, reducing substance abuse, particularly as it occurs in the form of self-medication, and reducing effects of prisonization such as aggression and hostility. MBIs have the added benefit of being cost-effective and accessible to a large proportion of inmates as it does not require any additional resources after the initial instruction and can be practiced at any time and location. While these therapies would not be sufficient for treating severe and biochemically-based illnesses that require pharmaceutical intervention, one can confidently recommend these modalities as adjunctive treatments that are successful in affecting transformative therapeutic change in forensic populations beyond the reach of conventional modalities.


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