‘Mindfulness’ is a term that I’ve heard floating around over the last couple of years, but I didn’t really get it. Nobody ever really explained it to me and I never took the time to research it myself. This year, following a school-wide effort and excellent PD sessions led by John Shanahan, I have come to realise two things:
- Mindfulness is well-researched and scientifically proven to reduce depression, stress and anxiety.
- There is an urgent need for it.
The urgent need
South China Morning Post (2016) researched and concluded that 51% of young people in Hong Kong show signs of depression. Over half! Almost 20% of students showed moderate to severe symptoms and, tragically, twenty-two young people have committed suicide in Hong Kong since the start of this academic year.
This is not just a crisis in Hong Kong. Statistics are similarly terrifying in other countries around the world. In the UK, 80,000 young people suffer from severe depression. Young Minds has acknowledged that the number of students who are deliberately self-harming has increased by 68% in the last ten years. This is now believed to be one in every twelve students.
“Alarmingly, 70% of children and young people who experience a mental health problem have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.”
(Mental Health Foundation, 2016)
Instead of being part of the problem, education should be part of the solution.
What is mindfulness?
“It involves making a special effort to give your full attention to what is happening in the present moment – to what’s happening in your body, your mind or your surroundings, for example – in a non-judgemental way.”
Meditation is typically associated with Asian belief systems, particularly Buddhism. However, as the practices become more mainstream around the world, it is important to acknowledge that people of any faith, or no faith, can practice mindfulness. Indeed, we practice it at school without any religious connotations. As an atheist, I’m far more interested in the scientific facts; the way that mindfulness positively affects the brain (outlined later).
“People spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind wandering typically makes them unhappy.”
(Killingsworth and Gilbert, 2010)
The illustration below is a fantastic representation of mindfulness. Thoughts relating to the past or future typically make us unhappy, as Killingsworth and Gilbert state. Mindfulness is about being ‘present in the moment’.
The MindUp program by The Hawn Foundation now serves over one million students worldwide, promoting mental health through mindfulness. The program builds social and emotional skills, leading to personal resilience. Click the left image to find out more about the MindUp curriculum. As a starting point, it is our aim in the primary section to teach the first three lessons before the end of the first term. These three lessons explain some of the ‘key players’ in neuroscience and how they are affected by the Core Practice.
The amygdala is one of the ‘key players’ in your brain. Its function is to detect danger and to make you alert. It is often described as a gateway in your brain, due to the way in which it closes off the rest of the brain in times of danger, stress and anxiety. If the amygdala is active, it ‘hijacks’ the rest of the brain, making processing and logical thinking much more difficult. This is incredibly important at certain times (such as when a car is approaching) and extremely unhelpful in other situations (such as in an exam). With practise, you can learn to control your amygdala. The Core Practice is a very simple and proven strategy for ‘opening the gateway’ and allowing other parts of the brain to function.
The Core Practice
After the first three lessons of MindUp, the students have an understanding of the neuroscience and they can appreciate the benefits of the Core Practice. The Core Practice is simply one minute of deep, mindful breathing (described below).
“A typical meditation consists of focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to realise that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and watch again as they disappear.”
By the end of the first term, after all classes have completed the first three lessons, it is an expectation that every class undertakes the Core Practice at three key transition times of the day (beginning, after recess and after lunch). This will help them to focus on their learning without being distracted by other thoughts.
I understand that many cynics will read this. I used to be one! I encourage you to carry out your own research before dismissing mindfulness. Even better, try the Core Practice yourself on a regular basis. Doing it properly is actually a lot harder than it sounds though, so don’t expect immediate results.
“While doing this, other thoughts will enter your mind unbidden: ‘I must pay that gas bill later’, ‘Did I come off as stupid in the meeting earlier?’ or even ‘I keep losing track of my breath and thinking about other things – I’m rubbish at this!’. The idea in a mindfulness session is to merely note these thoughts, without judgement, and to let them pass. You then return to focusing on the breath.”
Are you practicing mindfulness? Is your school promoting it? In what other ways can we tackle mental health issues in young people? Please keep the discussion going by leaving a comment below.