Koru: A Program to Help Students with Stress at Duke University

October 14, 2014

I don’t think I would have made it through grad school without this class.

This is a quotation from a Duke student who participated in Koru, a course to help students with stress that has its inspiration in mindfulness meditation and The Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s mind-body skills group model.

Koru, which is a Maori symbol for growth around a stable center, began at Duke University in 2007 and has since then transformed the lives of hundreds of Duke students.

My story of how Koru was developed, and how I found the Center, begins in the Duke Hospital Emergency Department back when I was a psychiatry resident on call there in 2002, struggling with my own stress. I evaluated a patient that night and then, as was the norm, called my attending to get her backup thoughts. Well, that attending was Dr. Kathryn Connor, a prominent researcher at Duke, whom I knew about because we have a mutual friend. She immediately invited me to lunch the next day. And at that lunch we talked about our views of medicine and the mind-body connection, and she invited me to attend the Center’s Mind-Body Medicine professional training in Minnesota in 2003, her treat.

And thus began the journey that would bring me to Koru. I caught fire in Minnesota and Kathy then helped me to attend the Advanced Mind-Body Medicine training program in Hilton Head in 2004. She and I then started mind-body skills groups at Duke Medicine and eventually under my own steam I held groups for faculty, residents and staff. When I began to specialize in work with oncology patients, I held several groups for fellows and residents in oncology. The faculty and staff groups were highly successful, but the others were not. Residents and fellows have such demanding schedules that it was extremely difficult for them to attend groups regularly.

It was at this point, nearing the end of residency in 2006, that I took a seminar in forensic medicine led by Dr. Holly Rogers, a long-time practitioner of mindfulness meditation who had been trying for years to teach it to students, without much success. She is a psychiatrist at the Duke University Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). I can’t remember if she mentioned meditation in that first class, but at the end of it I approached her and we talked about teaching meditation. I told her about my mind-body skills training and said that I thought perhaps some kind of combination of Dr. Gordon’s model and traditional mindfulness training might work for students.

And thus Koru was born. Here we are now, 8 years later, with a hugely successful program firmly entrenched at Duke. Our model takes much of its structure from the Center model, with small-group learning, check-in, and skills training. The course consists of 4 – 1 and 1/4 hour classes.

In July of 2012 Oxford University Press published our book on Koru: Rogers, H and Maytan, M (2012). Mindfulness for the Next Generation: Helping Emerging Adults Manage Stress and Lead Healthier Lives. Oxford University Press.

Just recently we published the results of a randomized controlled trial of Koru; this RCT showed that students who participated in the four-week course developed significant improvements in perceived stress, sleep, mindfulness, and self-compassion.

Jeffrey M. Greeson, Ph.D., Michael K. Juberg, B.A., Margaret Maytan, M.D., Kiera James, Holly Rogers, M.D. (2014) A Randomized Controlled Trial of Koru: A Mindfulness Program for College Students and Other Emerging Adults. J Am Coll Health. 62(4):222-33.

Holly has founded the Koru Center for Mindfulness, which offers training in our model.

Koru would not exist without its inspiration in the Center’s mind-body skills groups model. I can never adequately express my gratitude to Kathy Connor for guiding me to Jim Gordon’s program, and to Jim for his unfailing support and his profoundly inspiring teaching.