Mindset and Mental Health: Interview With an Expert

Mindset and Mental Health: Interview With an Expert

We recently wrote a blog detailing some of the latest research that highlights the link between mindset and mental health. A significant part of that blog was based on the research of Jessica Schleider. Jessica is a Yale fellow and Harvard researcher. We thought it would be interesting to dig a little deeper and ask her more about her research.

InnerDrive: If you had to sum up the major findings from your research on growth mindset and mental health what would they be?

Jessica Schleider: So far, our research on mindsets can be summarized in two main points:

  1. Mindsets matter for youth mental health. Compared to youths who view personal traits as set-in-stone, those who view those same traits as malleable experience fewer mental health problems, overall. We have found that the mindset-mental health link persists across different types of mindsets (e.g., mindsets of intelligence, social skills, and personality) and mental health difficulties (e.g., aggression; depression). 
  1. Modifying mindsets may reduce depression (and to a lesser degree, anxiety) in high-symptom teensIn a recent clinical trial funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (here in the US), we found that a brief, computer-based intervention teaching a growth mindset of personality improved social stress recovery, increased perceived control, and reduced depression and anxiety in high-symptom adolescents (ages 12 to 15). The mindset intervention was especially helpful for depression: Nine months after the mindset session, teens reported lower levels of depression and exhibited significantly fewer signs of depression to their parents, compared to teens who received a control intervention (which was sort of a 'placebo' therapy, teaching the importance of sharing and expressing your feelings).

Past studies have found that mindset interventions improve academic, social, and psychological functioning in healthy adolescents. Our work suggests that an adapted version of these mindset programs may promote mental health and stress-coping in youth with significant emotional distress.  

InnerDrive: Why do you think there is a link between mindset and mental health?

Jessica Schleider: Youth mental health problems often stem from excess stress, whether at school, at home, or with peers. But all students experience stressors -- and just a subset develops anxiety, depression, or behavioral problems. Why are students more resilient to stress than others?

This, we think, is where mindsets may play a role. Mindsets serve as our internal frameworks for understanding, coping with, and responding to setbacks and adversities. For example, youths who hold fixed views of personal traits (i.e., beliefs that they cannot become smarter, less shy, or more socially skilled, regardless of personal effort) may feel unable to control stressful life events, and thus be more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, or aggression. As a result, fixed mindsets may set the stage for poor stress-coping and mental health problems over time.

In contrast, growth mindsets might protect against mental health problems. Rather than feeling helpless after setbacks, students who view their traits as malleable might believe that they can actively alter or improve their outcomes through effort. For these individuals, stressors may represent an opportunity for self-improvement—not a sign of fixed inability. By providing a rationale for persisting in the face of challenge, growth mindsets may protect against ineffective coping, and in turn, psychological distress.

InnerDrive:  When most people in England talk about mindset, they usually think about someone’s belief about their capacity to improve their intelligence or abilities. Your research also talks about personality mindset. Can you explain what you mean by this, how it differs from the previously mentioned definition of mindset and any findings from your research on it?

Jessica Schleider: Most research on mindsets has focused on the intelligence domain (i.e., beliefs about whether intelligence is fixed or malleable), since that is where Dweck's work began. But researchers are now exploring mindsets in many different domains. We recently wrote a chapter on "mindset of personality," focused on its links to mental health and resilience, and used the following definition for the term: "beliefs about one's personal character as set-in-stone or unchangeable." This definition includes beliefs about the malleability of specific personal traits, such as social skills and moral character, as well as one's overall personality.

Research shows that mindsets of personality and intelligence are separate from each other: that is, a person can hold 'opposite' mindsets about personality and intelligence. For example, you may view intelligence as malleable, and at the same time view personality as fixed. Our work has shown that both fixed mindsets of intelligence and personality show links to mental health problems in youth. However, other research shows that mindsets about intelligence are linked to academic functioning (e.g., grades and help-seeking in school), whereas mindsets about personality predict interpersonal functioning (e.g., peer relationships).

In adapting a mindset intervention for youth with anxiety and depression, we focused on teaching growth mindsets of personality: the idea that our personal traits, such as sadness, shyness, and likability, are malleable, not set-in-stone. The goal was to combat kids' feelings of being "stuck" with or defined by their symptoms. We hoped that the program would boost youths' sense of personal control over their symptoms and outcomes. The data suggested that this was the case: compared to youths in the control group, youths who received the mindset intervention reported significantly greater increases in perceived control over their own behaviors.

InnerDrive:  Do you think mindset interventions may be more helpful for certain areas of mental health than others?

Jessica Schleider: I think the answer depends on whether the goal is to prevent or treat mental health difficulties. For psychologically healthy students, interventions teaching growth mindset of personality have prevented future increases in depression and aggression. David Yeager and his team at the University of Texas have done terrific studies to this end.

However, the research on mindset interventions as potential treatments is still quite new. Our work suggests that, for students with high levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms, a brief growth mindset intervention was especially helpful in lowering depression, as compared to anxiety. In ongoing work, we are testing whether mindset interventions benefit youth who are formally diagnosed with anxiety and depressive disorders.

My guess is that mindset interventions may be helpful for youth experiencing many types of mental health challenges. But it may help to tailor the intervention's content to the type of problem a student is experiencing.  For example, an intervention for anxious youth might stress the malleability of anxiety and shyness, while a program for aggressive youth might teach that kids' social identities as bullies or victims can change. 

There is an important caveat to all of this: I do not view mindset interventions as replacements for longer-term mental health services! Students experiencing significant distress will likely benefit from more intensive treatment. Unfortunately, effective treatment is not always accessible to children with mental health needs (in the United States, at least). Given this reality, we view mindset interventions as a potentially valuable support for students with mild to moderate mental health difficulties, who might not otherwise access care.

InnerDrive:  In your experience, are mindset interventions more effective in younger students than older ones?

Jessica Schleider: So far, research on mindset interventions for mental health problems has focused on teenagers (ages 12 through 16). Depression often emerges during adolescence, so focusing on middle and high schoolers could be an especially powerful approach. At the same time, I am very interested in adapting mindset interventions for younger students experiencing mental health problems. Existing interventions might require a good amount of revision to make the material understandable and personally relevant for younger students. I hope to pursue this sort of work in the future! 

InnerDrive:  If you could give teachers one or two tips about how to help their students manage their mental health what would it be?

Jessica Schleider: Teachers spend lots of time with their students, often over long stretches of time.  As a result, teachers are often the first to notice emerging mental health problems in students, including anxiety, depression, and behavioral difficulties. Of course, mental health problems can look quite different in one student versus another. However, most of these problems present as changes in students' motivation, emotions, responses to setbacks, and engagement with peers and schoolwork.

When teachers notice these changes in a student, referring her for further assessment and support can make an incredible difference. This might mean contacting families, consulting with school support staff, or speaking with the student directly. Connecting struggling students with services as soon as difficulties emerge -- rather than after symptoms have developed into full disorders -- can lead to better health and adjustment across the lifespan. Up to 50% of lifetime mental health disorders emerge before age 14, so teachers can play a key role in facilitating early identification, prevention, and treatment.

InnerDrive: What do you think are the most effective strategies for developing a growth mindset?

Jessica Schleider: I think there's lots of exciting work yet to be done in this area. To date, research suggests that simply telling children to adopt growth mindsets -- or explaining why growth mindsets are helpful -- does not work. Growth mindset programs that are completed by students themselves, instead of delivered by adults, show much more promise. During the teenage years, students have a strong (and developmentally appropriate!) desire to build autonomy, make their own decisions, and form independent beliefs. As a result, being instructed or 'nagged' by teachers or parents to adopt growth mindsets can backfire. So, offering self-directed growth mindset programs might be one effective strategy for fostering growth mindsets in middle- and high-school-aged students -- both for students at lower and higher risk for mental health problems.

Another set of strategies may involve shifting teachers' interactions with students, especially following setbacks: the moments when students are most anxious, insecure, and unsure. This is a complicated and challenging goal, and Carol Dweck has often discussed that even well-intentioned educators tend to mis-apply mindset theory. For instance, there is a tendency to praise "trying hard" as the ultimate goal. But in fact, growth-minded praise should tie students' efforts to better understanding their mistakes, changing their strategies, and persisting towards their desired outcomes. I think efforts to build growth-minded behavior in teachers are still in the early stages, and I look forward to new initiatives designed to forward this complex goal! 

We would like to thank Jessica for her time and assistance. Her research is really interesting and we think she is pretty great.

If you would like to know more about Growth Mindset, have a look at our page How to Develop a Growth Mindset for tips and links to research.

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