Brief Therapy Aids Depressed College Students

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Brief Therapy Aids Depressed College Students  

Jim Windell


            Going to college is an exciting time for high school graduates. They get to venture off on their own while making new friends and finally becoming independent. For many young adults it will be the start of memorable experiences that will last a lifetime.

            However, a good many new college students will suffer depression. In fact, as the CDC notes, a 2021–2022 survey of students across 133 college campuses found that 44% of students reported symptoms of depression and 15% reported seriously considering suicide in the past year.

            It is not clear why college students experience so much depression. Certainly, one significant factor is that many college students feel intense pressure to succeed. Others may react with additional stress due to the rising costs of education. Some who are living apart from their parents for the first time may not be coping so well.

            Whatever the reasons, many college students have mental health needs and responding in the most effective and helpful way is important. However, what are the best ways of helping college students deal with their depression?

            This was a question that a team of researchers at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas explored in a study recently published in Behaviour Research and Therapy.

            The study involved 60 students who reported they were experiencing a lack of joy or enthusiasm (known as low positive affect or anhedonia). The SMU researchers sought to see if using combined behavioral activation (BA) therapy augmented with savoring (S) compared to students who received emotional awareness (EA) counseling.

            BA or behavioral activation is a therapeutic approach that alleviates depression by increasing engagement in meaningful activities. Savoring focuses on increasing one’s capacity to savor enjoyable experiences. EA or emotional awareness requires the participants to observe, monitor and reflect upon their positive and negative moods.

            Students participated in two online therapy sessions and completed daily mood surveys on their cell phones. Those receiving BA plus S were asked to choose enjoyable activities from a list and plan to do them daily. They were also given guidance on how to savor those activities and remember what they enjoyed about them. After carrying out the activities, the students discussed how doing the activities and savoring made them feel and were encouraged to focus on the positive aspects. Students reported feeling happier each day of the study and were also given ways to use BA plus S methods in the future, to possibly continue experiencing positive effect.

            On the other hand, those students receiving EA were encouraged to notice their feelings and to think about them, both good and bad. The students reported no positive affect improvements.

            The research team, led by Alicia E. Meuret, director of the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at SMU, found favorable results in the participants who used the combination of approaches when compared to the other group using EA. In other words, BA plus savoring allowed students to achieve positive emotions (or high positive affect).

             “Behavioral activation has been around for decades and used to treat depression,” says Alicia E. Meuret, senior author of the study “What’s new is the focus on improving positivity instead of reducing negative feelings. Adding savoring, further pushes people to pay attention to what is in these enjoyable activities that make them feel better. The activity then becomes more salient in their memory and makes it easier for them to feel anticipatory reward or excitement.”

            The authors point out that one of the benefits of using online BA plus savoring therapy is its ease of accessibility compared to in-person therapy.

            Lead author Divya Kumar, who earned her doctorate in clinical psychology under Meuret at SMU and is now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard/McLean Hospital, comments that “BA plus savoring could help students feel better as a stand-alone strategy or while they wait for traditional treatment.” She adds that because there are challenges in accessibility to mental health care, finding ways to provide brief and online therapy interventions continues to gain momentum – “Especially if those methods are targeting positive emotions as well as negative ones.”

            To read the original study, find it with this reference:

Kumar, D., Corner, S., Kim, R., & Meuret, A.E. (2024). A randomized controlled trial of brief behavioral activation plus savoring for positive affect dysregulation in university students. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 177, 104525, ISSN 0005-7967,


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