GAMBIER — One evening last year, San Francisco therapist and author Dr. Sheppard Kominars turned on a television news program. He saw an interview with S. Georgia Nugent, the president of Kominars’ alma mater, Kenyon College, regarding the Amethyst Initiative, a collective effort launched by several colleges to combat binge drinking by America’s college students. Kominars recognized the journal therapy he has practised and promoted for 50 years would go hand in hand with the initiative.
When Kominars visited Kenyon last spring to distribute 2,000 copies of his book “Write for Life,” he talked with Nugent, who noticed the affinities between the therapist’s journaling program and the Greek philosopher Plato’s concept of “the examined life.” Kominars said he had an idea to combine this ancient wisdom with modern interactive technology for the benefit of students.
“Let’s do it here,” Nugent said, and put Kominars in contact with John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont and coordinator of the Amethyst Initiative. McCardell encouraged developing a pilot program for launch this fall.
Kominars brought Dr. Kim Hiatt, a psychology professor and childhood obesity expert from Southwestern College, into the program, and enlisted the help of counselors, professors and technology developers. The result of their combined work was unveiled Wednesday at Kenyon.
The “Journal to Win” pilot program will lead students through a Web-based journal writing process. The students will start by writing in response to prompts from a dedicated Web site. The site will include two modules for the pilot program: Life Choices, tailored to the issues of irresponsible drinking/substance abuse, and Body Image, examining unhealthy eating practices/low self-esteem. Under each module are channels with prompts grouped by subject to point the students in various directions, such as examining one’s history, habits, family, goals and how drinking and eating issues are woven through them.
“Most counselling programs online talk at people,” Kominars said. “This is interactive, a way of helping students help themselves.”
Kominars said journaling has been scientifically proven to reduce stress. He said it works because it is a way of taking life’s problems and putting them in a frame, giving them a truer perspective.
Kominars said “Journal to Win” doesn’t merely give young adults a book, it gives them a technologically up-to-date way to journal from any computer or hand-held device that can access the Internet. The journal entry can be saved on the student’s own computer or sent to a selected e-mail address. The entries are not stored on the Web site, and cannot be seen by anyone else.
The students are given a code, then create their own accounts anonymously. The only information collected will be from two anonymous surveys, one at the beginning of the journaling, and one at the end, both of which will be used to evaluate the success of the experiment.
The pilot program will feature 50 students — a mixture of volunteers and referrals from Kenyon’s student counselors — journaling for two months. Sixteen other colleges and universities will participate, with several others waiting in the wings to hear more about how the program does.
Kominars said it is economically effective, costing much less than individual therapy would for students, while still giving them the tools to examine their own lives and decide how to improve them. The aim is not to make participants narcissistic or ego-centric, but merely to help them bring themselves into focus, Kominars said, adding that as a cancer survivor who escaped an addiction to prescription painkillers with journaling, he has seen that 12-step programs feature a lot of people talking, with very little listening taking place. He said journaling allows one’s thoughts to remain written out for later review, which can help one identify problems and concerns.
Kominars said future concepts include expanding the program to include several more modules and adding a point system for doing entries, which might reward the student with discounts at the college bookstore or with free mobile phone ring tones.
Kominars said he hopes students will try it and discover what science has already proven.
“You can change your mood quicker by writing than by drinking or taking a pill,” he said.