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Building resilience and improving well-being with mindfulness

We are currently witnessing a crisis in children’s mental health, already on the rise over the past decade and further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one in five high school students seriously considered suicide in 2021, reflecting a disturbing trend fueled by a mix of online and offline stressors—from cyberbullying and social isolation exacerbated by digital devices to family disruptions linked to opioid abuse. This surge in mental health issues among youth has led to increased emergency room visits by young individuals, many of whom are under driving age. Complicating this crisis is a notable shortage of mental health providers for children, placing an unexpected burden on educators and caregivers.

Schools have become critical points of care, tasked with addressing these needs with the rising concerns about chronic absenteeism and its connection to mental health. Meanwhile, the mental health of the educators themselves is under siege; surveys by the RAND Corporation reveal that about one in four teachers exhibited symptoms of depression early in 2021, and most secondary school principals reported frequent job-related stress, particularly concerning their role in supporting the mental well-being of their staff.

Throughout my career, including a decade-long tenure overseeing the provision of mental health services at Rikers Island Correctional Facility, where I implemented a rewards-based behavioral treatment program, and my time leading trainings for the New York State Master Teacher Program on topics such as mindfulness, resilience, and motivational interviewing, I have witnessed firsthand the daily pressures and rewards of working in high-stress institutions. I have also seen the substantial value that positive psychology practices and mindfulness – including the importance of cultivating traits such as gratitude, kindness, and self-compassion – can bring.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of sharing the lessons that I have learned throughout my career and engage directly with leaders from Georgia’s public school system, including school counselors, benefit/payroll managers, HR directors, nurses, superintendents, and wellness ambassadors as part of the inaugural State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP) 2024 Mental Health Awareness Summit: A Path to a Resilient State of Mind. Together, we explored strategies, experiences, and insights for integrating guided and directed practices, as found in Sharecare’s clinically validated digital therapeutics for behavioral health, including Unwinding Anxiety, Unwinding by Sharecare, Eat Right Now, and Craving to Quit – all of which are available to SHBP members through Sharecare’s digital platform.

At the summit, I highlighted research by Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, which focuses on empowering positive emotions, strengths-based character, and optimistic mindsets rather than merely mitigating mental illness. We discussed five foundational points: 

  1. Self-care comes first: It’s crucial for educators to prioritize their own well-being to effectively support their students. Just as in emergency procedures on airplanes, we must secure our own oxygen mask before assisting others. This principle makes sure that educators are not only well-prepared but also well-equipped to handle the stresses of their profession.
  2. Mindfulness can lead to many positive outcomes: Engaging in mindfulness practices such as meditation or focused breathing helps reduce stress and increase presence of mind. These techniques help educators manage their reactions and interactions throughout the school day, promoting a calmer, more focused classroom environment.
  3. It’s sometimes too painful to pay attention: Mindfulness isn’t always easy. For those experiencing severe stress or trauma, direct mindfulness practices can sometimes be overwhelming. This is where guided practices, like the 5-finger meditation, come into play, offering structured ways to ease into mindfulness without overwhelming the mind.
  4. Idealism sometimes speeds up burnout: While passion for teaching is admirable, unrealistic expectations about personal impact can lead to disillusionment and burnout. It’s important for educators to set achievable goals and acknowledge the incremental nature of success in teaching.
  5. Teachers know their students best: Educators often have the clearest insight into their students’ needs and behaviors. Empowering teachers with the tools to apply positive psychology in their interactions can lead to improved student outcomes.

Reflecting on the engaging discussions at the summit, one participant’s approach to leadership stood out. She described her proactive effort to “bring the sunshine” by positively engaging with colleagues and students, a perfect example of the power in leading by example. I am eager to continue this ongoing dialogue as we close this Mental Health Awareness Month. Together, we can pave the way for a healthier, more positive future for our education systems and society at large.

“If positive psychology teaches us anything, it is that all of us are a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. No one has it all, and no one lacks it all.” – Christopher Peterson