ACS Practices Mindfulness!

Written By: JoAnn Kukulus, MFTI   |  ACS’ Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment Program & Community Counseling Program

Recently I had the opportunity to become trained and certified to implement a group and individual curriculum called “Mindfulness-Based Substance Abuse Treatment for Adolescents,” which the ACS programs are beginning to utilize.  This relatively new evidence-based curriculum, founded by Sam Himelstein and Stephen Saul in Oakland, CA, incorporates the well-established practice of mindfulness with self-awareness in treatment for substance abuse to create an effective method for working and connecting with teens and young adults in a meaningful way.  Mindfulness has been shown to be an effective intervention with youth populations in general, and separately, with addiction populations.  Himelstein and Saul’s curriculum builds upon the success with each of these populations to create an intervention that utilizes mindfulness practices among substance-abusing youth populations.

The goal and eventual outcome of this curriculum is to increase adolescents’ knowledge of themselves along with their ability to regulate emotions, thereby empowering them to make healthy choices and reduce unhealthy behaviors like alcohol and drug use. The primary focus of an intervention is the development of an authentic relationship among adolescent group members, as well as between therapists or professional facilitators and adolescents.

The complete curriculum is comprised of 12 sessions that incorporate formal and informal mindfulness meditation practices, emotional awareness activities, substance-abuse education and information, and relapse-prevention strategies. Lessons are designed to encourage participants to develop awareness of the many contributing factors to their substance use, including learning to identify internal and external triggers. Lastly, the curriculum allows the individual to come to their own conclusions about what effect substance use has had on their lives, instead of utilizing largely unhelpful and ineffective lectures on the evils of substance use. Himelstein and Saul encourage facilitators to apply the curriculum in the ways it will be most effective for a particular group or individual, and this flexibility allows practitioners to develop their own skillful and creative style of presenting the intervention tools.

A key factor in facilitating this curriculum lies in the treating professional’s belief in the power of mindfulness as a therapeutic tool, and working knowledge of mindfulness practice. Himelstein and Saul found that the facilitators’ personal commitment to mindfulness interventions positively impacts the responsiveness, engagement, and outcome for the youth/young adult participants, and facilitators’ own familiarity with the practice (even if it is at the novice level) provides the tools to skillfully guide and support clients through the experience of meditation and self-awareness activities. The strategy of pairing mindfulness-based practices and teens or young adults to enhance the outcome of therapy is one that ACS has eagerly embraced, even prior to this training! Last August, the Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment program began incorporating self-awareness and grounding/meditation activities into the group therapy sessions to complement the Hazelden curriculum that has long been part of the program, and most of our therapists are sharing their own knowledge of mindfulness with Community Counseling Program clients as well.

The true beauty of mindfulness-based approaches is that they are so applicable to the treatment of both substance-use and other mental health issues. In addition to the positive outcomes for specific substance-abuse issues (decreased cravings to use drugs, increased ability to be non-responsive to cravings, greater awareness of the risk of drug use, decreased drug use), mindfulness practices also have a positive impact on the many mental health issues that contribute to a decreased quality of life in general (increased ability to manage strong emotions, reduced impulsiveness, reduced/decreased stress, increased overall well-being). Mindfulness-based techniques are: simple to learn and can be tailored to each individual, depending on needs; no-cost and portable; easily implemented in almost any environment/situation.
Mindfulness-based therapeutic strategies have recently become the hot ‘new’ treatment technique; ACS’ response is that it’s already part of our treatment model, and we are excited about incorporating mindfulness in even more creative ways!


Reference:  Himelstein, S. and Saul, S. (2015) Mindfulness-Based Substance Abuse Treatment for Adolescents: A 12-Session Curriculum.
Routledge, New York and London

Image:  Costa Rican Zen Garden