“We’re the only developed country on earth where this happens.” President Obama after the latest school shooting on June 10th, 2014 in Oregon.
The recent school shootings are a distressing reminder that these violent attacks are commonplace – “January’s Epidemic: 11 School Shootings in 19 Days” and “American Epidemic: 3 Shootings in One Week.” These are our children. Our schools. It is no surprise that the Global Peace Index no longer ranks the United States in the top 100 most peaceful countries in the world. We are now ranked 101st.
“I am increasingly persuaded that both the worrying increase in mental health problems and the demonstrations of antisocial, even violent, behavior in young people in the West at present must be related to a lack of silence and a lack of training in how to use silence.” Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence (2010)
The integration of meditation and mindfulness practices into the lives of our children is becoming urgent as we look for solutions to better support their strong mental development. It is not just high levels of stress and anxiety that should prompt homes, schools, and institutions to learn about effective methods and applications. It is also what Prime Minister David Cameron “suggested when he asked the Office of National Statistics in 2010 to find a statistically robust measure of wellbeing: “He could sense that people were far from their natures.” (Jonathon Rowson, RSA.)
If we work under the assumption that we live in a country where the epidemic might in fact be “people far from our natures,” consider these recent articles from the American Psychological Association:
- Mindfulness training appears to improve attention skills and lower anti-social behavior among incarcerated youth, (October 2013)
- Thirty minutes of daily meditation may provide as much relief from anxiety and depression symptoms as antidepressants (January 2014)
- Moderate exercise appears to prevent episodes of depression in the long term, (November 2013)
- Taking a break from technology and immersing yourself in nature may improve creativity, (December 2013)
And now if we imagine that meditation and mindfulness practices become mainstream and accessible to most, if not all children in the United States, how might this effect an entire generation?
“The possibility of creating social change drives the strategy of population level prevention. Influence one student and change one student. Influence many students and change culture. While no science clearly defines the percentage of students that must be reached to achieve population level effects, it seems logical and likely that the magnitude of effect will be directly proportional to the fraction of the population influenced.” Dr. Richard Keeling. Paper for NASPA – “Population Level Prevention in Practice.”
So how do we get there?
Consider the example of the affluent suburb of Newton, Massachusetts where teenagers are carrying adult-level stress with pressure to achieve and perform at high levels. The town received a $30,000 grant to deal with the stress of teens and their parents. The conversation became even more important when three high school students committed suicide this school year. They sought help from the Benson Henry Institute of Mind-Body Medicine to offer stress-reduction sessions for the parents and teens.
Teenage stress is not limited to well-off communities where kids worry is usually linked to academic performance, college acceptance, and social events. Dr. Marilyn R. Wilcher of the Benson Henry Institute shared with me that many inner-city youth are exposed to real violence, and therefore their stress becomes, “are we going to be alive.” In lower income communities, teens deal with the chronic stress that comes with living so close to poverty.
As we look for strategies appropriate for all socio-economic groups, it is interesting to watch the steps they are taking across the pond. The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Mindfulness has just been launched in the Houses of Parliament. According to the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, “the work of the Initiative involves consulting with policy makers, government ministers, parliamentarians, opinion-formers and employers, as well as those involved in teaching mindfulness, in order to convene key conversations and formulate policy recommendations.”
While I don’t believe there is any such task force set up in the United States yet, there are impressive organizations and individuals working to provide needy populations with these practices:
- Benson Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine: Extra Edge program provides private classes with age-appropriate series of intellectual and experiential exercises that support learning to handle stress. Children complete the program with the tools they need to develop effective stress management skills that will serve them in learning and all throughout their lives.
- The David Lynch Foundation: a 501(c)(3) organization, was established in 2005 to fund the implementation of scientifically proven stress-reducing modalities, including the Transcendental Meditation program, for at-risk populations such as underserved inner-city students; veterans with PTSD and their families; women and children who are survivors of violence and abuse; American Indians suffering from diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high suicide rates; homeless men participating in reentry programs who are striving to overcome addictions; and incarcerated juveniles and adults.
- Luster Learning Institute: a not-for-profit, 501(c)(3) organization, founded in 2007. Dedicated to diminishing stress, anxiety, and the emotional and physical violence that prevents human beings from experiencing their highest potential. This is accomplished by providing educational programs that cultivate the habit of practicing techniques that develop self-awareness, mental focus, alertness, and emotional calm. Their Calm Classroom program was launched in January of 2008 at three public schools in Chicago and as of 2013, has reached 70,000 students and their families, 4,000 teachers/school staff, and 1,000 administrators from 125 schools.
- The Hawn Foundation: MindUP™ is a research-based training program for educators and children. This program is composed of 15 lessons based in neuroscience. Students learn to self-regulate behavior and mindfully engage in focused concentration required for academic success. MindUP™ lessons align with all state standards including Common Core and support improved academic performance while enhancing perspective taking, empathy and kindness as well as fostering complex problem solving skills.
These organizations all share positive and significant results. We are witnessing the growth of this important movement that is hopefully the beginning of a new commonplace. As Madeleine Bunting explains in her recent article for the Guardian,
“The analogy that Kabat-Zinn uses is with jogging. In the 1960s when he started running, people thought him a bit odd. Now on a Sunday morning parks and streets are full of people pounding away. The take-up rate for mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn says, is much sharper than for jogging. In another decade, one can imagine that it will be widely accepted and understood as a valuable way to look after your mental health. Just as physical exercise is vital to a desk-bound workforce, so mindfulness will come to be seen as vital for dealing with the complexity of our information-rich lives.”