- Youth in the United States are experiencing increasing rates of mental illness.
- Research demonstrates that mindfulness training in schools helps to prevent anxiety and depression.
- School-based mindfulness programs also promote engagement, emotion regulation, social skills, optimism, and productive behavior.
You have heard by now that teens in the United States are struggling with mental health more than ever before. A survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted in 2021 found 44 percent of teens experienced feelings of sadness or hopelessness that prevented them from participating in normal activities. Almost 20 percent of teens said they had considered suicide, and 9 percent said they attempted suicide. Research finds these problems are more pronounced among lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens.
The survey comes after a warning from the U.S. Surgeon General that the pandemic was “devastating” for youth mental health. In comparison to 2019, emergency room visits for suicide attempts in 2021 increased by 51 percent for adolescent girls; attempts increased by 4 percent for boys.
Cornell researcher Dr. Joshua Felver is working on developing programs to address this growing problem. A licensed psychologist by training, Felver performs research exploring the biomechanics and benefits of introducing kids to mindfulness-based training programs in schools. Felver has published a new book, Mindfulness in the Classroom: An Evidence-Based Program to Reduce Disruptive Behavior and Increase Academic Engagement.
Felver has conducted a whole body of research regarding how mindfulness—essentially self-awareness, acceptance, attention, and breathing exercises—can help youth, especially those who struggle with behavior problems.
“We all intuitively know kids are burned out, but this is really a crisis,” he explained. “There are certainly major disparities for vulnerable populations including people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth. There are many reasons for the current mental health crisis, and one major contributor is the heightened stress that kids are experiencing.”
Felver created a program called "Soles of the Feet," a short mindfulness intervention designed to help both adults and youth respond to intense, negative emotions. Through the program, participants learn to practice a simple meditation when they feel emotions that could potentially trigger aggression.
"Soles of the Feet," asks participants to begin in a standing or sitting position with the soles of their feet flat on the floor. Next, the participants are asked to recall an event that triggered an angry emotion and to observe and accept the angry thoughts. Then, participants are instructed to shift their attention to the sensations of their feet, and to the experience of moving their toes, feeling their shoes or socks, and noticing the different parts of their feet. They keep breathing and focusing on their feet until they feel calm.
Last year, Felver published a systematic review combining data from 15 studies that used "Soles of the Feet" in both adults and children, with and without disabilities. Results showed the program was highly effective at preventing disruptive behaviors including physical and verbal aggression. The program also helped participants to stay focused on school and work.
And in an earlier systematic review, Felver found that using mindfulness programs specifically in schools reduced behavioral problems, helped to prevent anxiety and depression, and helped students to improve their focus. They also found that school-based mindfulness programs helped to promote classroom engagement, emotion regulation, social skills, optimism, and productive classroom behavior.
“Mindfulness-based programming is known to have broad-ranging, positive health effects, and in particular stress reduction,” Felver said. “By reducing stress, mindfulness programming affects all the other health outcomes associated with stress. And we know that it helps people to build resilience.”
The take-home message: Practicing mindfulness is an effective way to help students reduce stress, regulate their emotions, and improve their mental health outcomes.