Friends for Life: A Cognitive Behavioural Program to Prevent the Onset of Mental Health Disorders
What is Friends for life? “It’s a school-based anxiety prevention and treatment program that is meant to instill in children and adolescents the skills and capacities to effectively deal with fears, worries, anxieties, and depression” – Stephen Schneider, Ph.D.Tweet
Like our health care system in general, the approach to mental health care in Canada is largely reactive; that is, it is largely concerned with treating mental health problems in individuals.
But like other institutions in Canadian society that deal with serious problems, this reactive approach is fraught with numerous problems: the lack of timely access to mental health diagnosis and treatment services by those who need it the most, the danger that mental health issues may reach a crisis level before they are detected, as well as the complexity, challenges, and soaring costs of treatment.
The mental health care system can learn a lot from advances made in crime control in recent years in which a greater emphasis has been placed to a more preventative approach. Most significantly, “crime prevention through social developmental” is an emerging philosophy that assesses and prevents the onset of delinquent and criminal behaviour by addressing the root causes that afflict at-risk children and adolescents.
This same proactive, preventative, social developmental approach should also be applied to how we deal with mental health disorders in society.
One program that exemplifies this way of thinking is FRIENDS for Life, a school-based anxiety prevention and treatment program that is meant to instill in children and adolescents the skills and capacities to effectively deal with fears, worries, anxieties, and depression.
Stephen writes, “The program has undergone extensive scientific testing and is endorsed by the World Health Organization.”
This is accomplished by building their psychological resilience, self-esteem, coping skills, and problem- solving skills, while promoting their ability to foster positive relationships with peers and adults. The long-term goal of the program, according to the program’s creator, clinical psychologist Dr. Paula Barrett, is to “reduce the incidence of serious psychological disorders, emotional distress and impairment in social functioning by teaching children and young people how to cope with, and manage, anxiety both now and in later life.”
The curriculum consists of 10 regular sessions and two booster sessions. The first two sessions include an introduction to the program. The remainder of the sessions entail sequential steps in which the children learn to “feel confident and brave.”
The FRIENDS for Life program is based on cognitive behavioural principles. Children are taught to be aware of cues in their body when they are feeling anxious (e.g., butterflies in their stomach) and then learn relaxation techniques. Children are also taught to recognize negative self-talk and correct such unhelpful thoughts in a positive way.
The FRIENDS program name is an acronym for the systematic lesson plan delivered by the curriculum:
Feelings (understanding one’s feelings and how others are feeling).
Relaxation techniques (specific techniques to learn to relax in stressful situations).
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Inner thoughts (recognizing how our thinking or self-talkcan promote anxiety or confidence).
Exploring solutions and coping plans (fostering a specific coping plan for and by each child).
Nice work! Now reward yourself (for positive reinforcement).
Don’t forget to practice (to inculcate the skills for use outside the FRIENDS group).
Stay calm or smile (a summary of the skills taught in the entire program).
The concept of friendships is also central to the program in that the curriculum “encourages children to (a) think of their body as their friend because it tells them when they are feeling worried or nervous by giving them clues; (b) be their own friend and reward themselves when they try hard; (c) make friends, so that they can build their social support networks; and finally (d) talk to their friends when they are in difficult or worrying situations.” 
The curriculum consists of 10 regular sessions and two booster sessions. The first two sessions include an introduction to the program. The remainder of the sessions entail sequential steps in which the children learn to “feel confident and brave.” The curriculum is highly interactive; much of the learning is done in a small group context that encourages discussion and peer support. Each child is provided with a workbook in which he or she can complete exercises at home with a parent and a personal diary, which can be used to record thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
In addition to the curriculum implemented with children, FRIENDS for Life also includes a family skills component to nurture the ability of parents to help their child with the skills.
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One of the advantages of FRIENDS is that it can be delivered by laypeople. The program was designed for use in schools by teachers during normal class time, but can be used in other settings, such as after-school programs.
The program has undergone extensive scientific testing and is endorsed by the World Health Organization.
The value of Friends for Life lies not simply in preventing the onset of mental health problems; it can also help ameliorate other problematic behaviours that share common root causes, such as substance abuse, homelessness, and prostitution. This program is on the cutting edge of a broader shift in thinking in how we deal with social problems; from the traditional reactive approach that emphasizes treatment to a proactive approach that stresses prevention. Whether it is implemented in public school system, after-school programs, or administered as part of counselling and therapeutic treatment, the time has come for proactive, preventative programs like Friends for Life.
“We have a choice where we put our energy, time and resources, therefore, I think it’s best to figure out where that energy can do the most good. Our children, as far as I am concerned, are one of the best investments we can make.”Jonathan Arenburg – The Road To Mental Wellness
The Road To Mental Wellness Would Like to thank Stephen Schneider, PhD. For His Contribution to our mission to help others. See Bio below.
 Barrett, P.M., 2007 Friends for Life: Introduction to FRIENDS, (unpublished)
 Shortt, A., Barrett, P., and Fox, T., (2001). Evaluating the friends program: A cognitive-behavioural group treatment of childhood anxiety disorders, Journal of Clinical Child Psychology. 30(4): 523–533
Preview – Publicly Funded Mental Heath Care
Division, something in plain sight, yet is left to fester under the weight of those who choice to see nothing wrong with it. That is of course, as long as said division doesn’t apply to them. But here’s the thing, a decisive society affects us all; Including the wealthy.
“John, what are you talking about? How do you know that human suffering, will eventually reach the doorsteps of the advantage?” While the answer is simply in a way, it is nonetheless, a long-winded one; one that I am happy to try and answer. It should be said, that this is my perspective on the issue, and should be read with this in mind.
Since I am a mental health writer, suffer and published author, I will use the mental health care system to illustrate my point. Firstly, I want to say; I detest any form of inequality and have made it my mission to highlight where we need to do better, regardless of colour, gender, sexual orientation, etc. I strongly believe that, If we are to make it a better world, we must be brave enough to talk about even the most challenging of societal issues; Furthermore, I also feel like we should stop arguing and start listening..
Now, let’s move onward, so I can show you where I am coming from. In Canada, we have a public health care system, and while it has served Canadians well overall, it is, however, far from 100% publicly funded. Take the mental health sector; its best described as a two tiered mental health care system.
Why? Sadly, it is sort of funded by the taxpayer; by that I mean, it’s poorly funded by government. A good example is when people are turned away from psych wards because there simply isn’t any beds. When someone comes in and says they are suicidal and are in crisis, they damn well better get the help they need; I mean, if the ER is full, they never turn away people having a stroke or heart attack. Am I right?
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Therefore, it’s both morally and ethically wrong to tell someone that they can’t be helped. At least in my view. While the powers that be continue to belive they are doing what’s right fiscally by making cuts, so many people are suffering.
Remember when I said the mental health care system is underfunded? Well, I guess its viewed as ok because we have a really robust, private mental health services here. That should solve the problem, right??? Wrong, In fact, I feel that it only creates more suffering; more pain and yes, great levels of division. It’s the old case of the haves VRS the have-nots. Sorry, but in my view this unacceptable.
The classic argument made in favour of this two tiered system is this: “If I can afford it, then what’s wrong with me paying for it?” Well, nothing, for you, however, for millions of others who are disadvantaged, the issue isn’t a choice, it’s their reality. In fact, the more disadvantaged you are, the more dire the consequences.
As many have so desperately put it, “I just give up, I either have to wait forever for care or go without.”
A convo between me and an administrative assistant – Private mental health service. (Read More)…. Publicly Funded Mental Heath Care
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