Help our teens de-stress

St Francis Bay freelance journalist Beth Cooper-Howell takes a look at the other side of life in Woman on Top, her weekly lifestyle column for The Herald

Teenagers and young adults don’t necessarily have the world at their feet or an oyster of opportunities. Ongoing tertiary education protests and exorbitant fees, ever-increasing pressures on high school pupils and doomsday prophecies about the economy collude to darken the rainbow. Academics, education leaders, politicians and economists hold the reins for this vulnerable sector of society but is there something that the rest of us can do, meanwhile, besides complaining and sharing our two cents’ worth? I’ve touched before on the topic of mindfulness and on the topic of complaining. The latter is easy to do and, with social media, becomes even easier and more dangerous in the hands of the ignorant and the angry. But mindfulness – there’s a practical tool. It’s a natural, affordable and infinitely more beneficial tool that may not solve the crises at hand but which soothes the sharp edges. Witness the good work being done by local NMMU health students during the protests here; they are creating safe spaces for harassed, anxious or injured youngsters; being on hand with water bottles and first aid kits; opening up areas of escape for anybody who needs help or simply needs to talk. This is mindfulness in action. It’s not just about sitting in a room, meditating on a candle. Educator and executive director of Inward Bound Mindfulness Education Jessica Morey explains that teen stress is on the rise and that recent studies show how mindfulness and “self-compassion” are useful tools to help young people cope during times of stress. A survey two years ago by the American Psychological Association showed that a high percentage of young teenagers, for example, reported increased stress levels and felt that they were not doing enough to handle their stress. Unless there’s a miraculous evaporation of daily stressors, it’s likely that these teens will carry that stress – physically, emotionally, mentally – into adulthood. In addition, adolescents who are frequently under stress will be more prone to depression and perform worse in school, Morey explains. Hobbies, friends and family are good external sources of help, but the concept of mindfulness is fast gaining credentials in academic circles. A Journal of Adolescence study, conducted by the University of Pittsburgh, showed that mindfulness training could reduce stress and support health and well-being in teenagers. Morey took part in this study by running a five-day mindfulness retreat at her Inward Bound Mindfulness Education centre. The goals included cultivating mindfulness, loving-kindness (I don’t know what that is, but it sounds inspiring), and “other positive mental and emotional capacities such as self-compassion and gratitude.” The benefits included learning to concentrate better, being more accepting of “present-moment” experiences and adopting “an attitude of care for all human beings, including themselves.” It worked. Results showed that all participants felt more satisfied with their lives and were happier and more self-compassionate. Months later, the results were the same – and again, and again. “The benefits of the retreat endured,” says Morey. “In other words, (they) learned skills during the retreat that seemed to help them manage stress and other challenges in their daily (lives).” We may not be able to cure the disease, but within every crisis and, particularly, on every campus and within each school it should be a given that youngsters have a safe space; and people there who know exactly how to teach them to breathe, survive and cope.