I was recently discussing mental health with a group of seventh graders when a student said something that stopped my mind. “When we have an issue, instead of taking a physical step forward, sometimes we need to take a mental step back,” she said during a lesson in our health and wellness curriculum. It was a remarkably perceptive statement, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. As a PE teacher and the Mindfulness Director at the school where I teach, I often hear students make insightful statements. This class had been particularly lively and engaged as we discussed the numerous obstacles to their well-being—a familiar subject for a group of teens living through the oft-described mental health crisis.
As recent media attention has pointed out, young people are suffering, and in an age of relative abundance, it isn’t abundantly clear what the root cause is.
By many metrics, it would appear that modern American teens are thriving. As psychologist Candice Odgers related in a New York Times piece about the mental health crisis, “Young people are more educated; less likely to get pregnant, use drugs; less likely to die of accident or injury…But there are these really important trends in anxiety, depression and suicide that stop us in our tracks.” Although there is not one explanation for this dissonance, Buddhism can offer a useful lens. Dukkha, often translated as suffering or unsatisfactoriness, is not something that afflicts the population selectively. Rather, it is a condition of the attachment that arises as we build up an ego that avoids and craves stimuli. Perhaps in our increasingly connected, affluent, and identity-driven society, this attachment and subsequent suffering is something that is more pronounced for teens than it ever was before.
Naomi Corlette, a teenager who agreed to be interviewed for this piece, identified a number of potential causes for distress, including an increase in technology use, decrease in human interaction, and concern for the future of the world.
“Many of us are fortunate enough to have our material needs met in a way that they wouldn’t have been in the past, but this leaves room for us to focus on more abstract issues which humans aren’t necessarily prepared to deal with,” Corlette said. “All of this can cause a lot of stress and despair, which is particularly hard on younger people.”
Of course, one’s teenage years are also when one first confronts the manifold issues and uncertainties posed by society, and the current zeitgeist provides many opportunities to be triggered and challenged. I recall being an angsty teen myself, and being wholly unsatisfied by the dogmas and diversions on offer. Mindfulness practice was a way to work with the shifting sands of my personal evolution as well as the evolving times.
Corlette is on the Youth Advisory Committee for Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (also known as iBme), an organization that offers mindfulness retreats for teens. The emphasis on in-depth experiences at iBme is one approach to helping teens work with their minds and confront some suffering. Another organization (and the one that helped establish my Mindfulness Director position in the school where I teach), called WholeSchool Mindfulness (WSM), does the opposite. It seeks to make mindfulness as readily available as physical education. Both approaches may be useful in supporting teenagers during a period in their lives when suffering feels particularly acute.
Go Wide or Go Deep?
Someone who can really speak to the value of both approaches is Ben Painter—a partner at WholeSchool Mindfulness who, incidentally, attended numerous iBme retreats as a teenager. One of his firm beliefs now, as an adult helping teens, is that teenagers need tools to resist the attention economy.
“Given what this generation of young people are up against, I think it’d be a really wise response if mindfulness and these contemplative practices of getting in touch with yourself and your experience and gaining some autonomy over your own attention were just considered an integral part of what it means to be educated,” Painter told me.
To this end, he believes one of the WSM model’s best attributes is how many students it can reach. “We’re trying to legitimize this model of a mindfulness director in schools, and make it broadly and widely accessible to America’s students in public education,” Painter said. “To me, that’s thrilling. It’s a wider scale.”
Still, Painter does recognize the strength of an approach that functions on a smaller scale but offers a more intensive experience. He cited the relationships formed at iBme retreats as an important reason he was able to take his practice off the cushion and out into the world. This peer-driven influence is something I see often in my teaching—no matter how much I might suggest mindfulness practices to help students deal with their full plates and overwhelmed minds, hearing about its benefits from one’s peers is much more powerful.
“It is a magical culture,” agreed Tonya Jones, who oversees iBme’s Program Strategy, Equity, and Community Engagement. “There’s something that happens on retreat that really helps cultivate an environment for peer-to-peer sharing, for being vulnerable in ways that seem to just kind of flow organically. There’s a good balance of contemplative time for yourself, but also time for community building and sharing and just showing up and being teens.”
In addition to providing moments of real insight, community, and connection, iBme also ensures that support is available for those teens who may be struggling with mental health. She notes the 3:1 ratio of teens to staff, as well as the presence of a mental health coordinator and a health coordinator at every retreat. The direction of the program remains in the hands of the teens themselves, however. “What’s unique about our approach is the centering of youth voices and wisdom,” Jones said. “Anyone can attend, they don’t have to change or do anything or show up a different way.” The fact that they can show up and be their full selves is one of the most common pieces of positive feedback the organization receives.
When I asked Painter if one approach might be more powerful than the other—the wide net that WSM casts by integrating mindfulness within the school system versus the deep net that iBme casts by facilitating retreats—he pointed out that this was a false dichotomy. “They each play a particular role in the ecosystem of introducing mindfulness practices to young people. When students get a taste of mindfulness in a school because they have a Mindfulness Director, there should be an opportunity to go deep, to opt in. I think they’re complementary.”
According to a 2015 meta-analysis of eleven studies, mindfulness-based interventions were more effective than controls in improving mental health symptoms in children and adolescents. Of course, as I’ve seen in my own implementation of mindfulness strategies as a Mindfulness Director, a practice is effective only if it is embraced. For teens especially, then, it’s essential that mindfulness is not just associated with sitting still or mitigating negative symptoms. That’s why I often introduce mindfulness practice with games and challenges that emphasize attention and awareness. Teenagers are nothing if not savvy, and asking them to sit up and be silent and still could be the first step toward alienating them.
“I think it’s important to stress that mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of ways,” pointed out Corlette, noting the potential for short practices, guided meditations, journaling, walking, or movement to cultivate love, playfulness, and joy. “If we can learn to treat each other more mindfully in our everyday lives, it can go a long way to improving teens’ lives.”
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