Improving the Mental Health of Youth Through Literature

Improving the Mental Health of Youth Through Literature

My older brother used to read me a story every night before bed. He would tuck me in and read me a chapter from the beloved series, Harry Potter. I would never have thought that years later, the same series would be used to help children develop distress coping skills.

Psychiatrist Mark Sinyor, based in Toronto, Canada founded project MyOWL, Optimizing Wellness through Literature, a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) program is being used to help individuals struggling with negative thoughts and mental health disorders such as depression and substance abuse issues. The general goal of CBT is to bring awareness to thinking patterns to see situations more clearly and improve decision-making amidst challenges.

The MyOWL program combines CBT with the world of literature, and it is showing promise in teaching children how to deal with distress and related mental health issues. The program aims to do so by having an instructor, typically a teacher, teach the program to a group of children in a classroom setting.

Many factors can impact youth mental health, including bullying, family conflict, academic stress, body changes, and social pressures, leading to the development of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

The percentage of children struggling with depression and anxiety has increased dramatically. In 2003, it was reported that 5.4% of children carried the diagnosis.  But by 2019, the numbers went up to 9.4% for anxiety and 4.4% for depression.

So far, outcomes for the program show promise. Sinyor explains: “The entire group does appear to benefit. But the program does seem to be the most beneficial to young people with pre-existing mental health problems. This is not a surprise and quite encouraging for an intervention of this kind. The youth without existing mental health problems are, by definition, relatively well. So they benefit too, but the amount of potential benefit is necessarily smaller in this group”.

MyOWL includes 11 units, which takes around three months to complete, and is currently being implemented in some schools across Ontario, Canada and is being administered by teachers to a group of students. The program is also available for use via the MyOWL website, which highlights a unique component of this program – it does not need to be taught by a mental health professional.

The program was designed in such a way that it can be delivered by someone without a background in mental health. If they follow the specific steps, their students will learn the necessary CBT skills. This is another exciting innovation. Usually, CBT has to be delivered to individuals or small groups by content experts.

Currently, the MyOWL program is based on the literature of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. This novel stands out from the others in the series, as explained by Sinyor: “In this book, Harry’s nemesis is his own depression, and he goes through very specific steps of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to defeat it. About eight years ago, I was conducting a CBT group with depressed adults as part of my work and I was reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to my then 7 year old son. I realized that Harry was doing the same work with his teacher (Professor Lupin) that I was doing with my patients. So, this specific book is quite unique”.

-Vanessa DiPasquale, Contributing Writer

Image Credits:
Feature: CDC at Unsplash, Creative Commons
First: Andrea Piacquadio
at Pexels, Creative Commons
Second: Kenny Eliason at Unsplash, Creative Commons