Social anxiety disorder is a common and impairing mental disorder that typically begins in adolescence with persistence into adulthood (Öst, 1987), and early intervention can have meaningful short- and long-term benefits (Albano, 1996). Given that adolescents generally do not receive the mental health treatment they need (Merikangas et al., 2010), especially when they need treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder (Burstein et al., 2011), alternative methods of intervention are needed.
Improvisational theater (improv) is an interactive social activity that rewards the development of skills such as acceptance and peer support (Berk & Trieber, 2009). Improv involves regular exposure to social performance situations and is gaining recognition as a context for delivering psycho-social interventions. The current study examines a school-based ten-week improv program as a potential low-cost, non-stigmatizing, alternative intervention for social anxiety in a Midwestern city.
Surveys were collected on weeks one (n=266) and ten (n=147) of the improvisational theater program across ten urban public schools, grades 8-12. The final pre- and post-test surveys included five established measures, the Adolescent Social Self-Efficacy Scale (Connolly, 1989), the Mini-SPIN measuring social anxiety (Connor, Kobak, Churchill, Katzelnick, & Davidson, 2001), the Patient Health Questionnaire – 2 measuring depression (Richardson et al., 2010), The Children’s Hope Scale, a measure of Creative Self-Efficacy (Beghetto, 2006) in addition to other program-specific items. On the posttest survey, we also measured self-reported engagement in the program.
To examine the relationship between improv training and social anxiety, we used the Mini-SPIN to screen participants for social anxiety at week one of the program and then fit a multilevel model to the Mini-SPIN change scores. We found that the estimate of the fixed overall intercept was -2.41 (SE = 0.51, p = 0.003), suggesting a significant decrease in social anxiety scores over time (accounting for the random school effects). This change is tied to increases in social self-efficacy, hope, creative self-efficacy, comfort performing for others, and willingness to make mistakes, along with marginal decreases in symptoms of depression (See Table 1).
The majority of students felt the program had been beneficial. At the end of the program, 69.4% of students agreed (at least somewhat) that improvisation training had been helpful to them outside of class (n = 147). In general, students found the lessons to be valuable to their lives outside of class, and would recommend it (see Table 2).
To examine the impact of engagement on overall outcomes, we correlated self-reported engagement with our nine pre/post measures (See Table 3). We found that students’ engagement positively predicted self-reported increases in social self-efficacy, hope, creative self-efficacy, comfort performing for others, willingness to make mistakes, and outward social attention, as well as a decrease in symptoms of social anxiety.
Given that no prior study has linked school-based improvisational theater training with reduced social anxiety, this work offers an important early contribution to the empirical literature on improvisation and mental health. School-based improv training offers an accessible, non-clinical alternative for addressing social anxiety problems among adolescents.