At any given point this year, one in four adults will have an experience with mental illness. This could be anything, from anxiety and depression to substance misuse and psychosis. We speak loudly about these adults because there seems to be a view that children don’t get mentally ill; adults do. Adults spend all day dealing with the stress of society, of their jobs, relationships, and bank balance, so of course they deal with mental illness. What do children have to worry or be sad about?

According to statistics published by charity MQ Mental Health, three in four mental illnesses start in childhood, before a young adult turns 18. Half of all mental health problems, excluding age related progressive issues such as dementia, have begun taking root before a child or young person reaches the age of 15. In an average class of 30 school children, three of those children will have a diagnosable mental health issue. Less than 30% of the research undertaken on mental health is focused on young people.

Mental health problems in children and young adults are often overlooked, as are the opportunities to deal with these issues. We don’t discuss them enough with children; we don’t talk about them enough in schools or at home. A child with general anxiety disorder or depression might not understand why they feel the way they do all the time; why they’re too scared to talk to people or too sad to get out of bed. We have not yet cracked why some people are mentally ill, but research tells us that it is clear that the conditions are caused by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors. These factors do not exclude children.

Mindfulness is already used as an aspect of cognitive behavioural therapy to treat those with anxiety and depression among other mental health issues. Therapists often recommend apps and tapes and encourage their patients to take five minutes every day where they can to perform an act of mindful meditation, in order to centre themselves and clear their mind. In the minds of those for whom mindfulness works, they revere it as a sort of act of cleansing on the mind. If this is something regularly prescribed and recommended by doctors for people, usually adults, who are struggling with anxious, catastrophising, overworked minds, why should children be exempt from learning about it?

By teaching mindfulness to children early in their school careers, we give them the tools to take into adulthood what they need to cope with stressful situations. In the present, it can give them a way to better concentrate on their subjects and exams, and to open them up to self-reflection, self-understanding, and the sense of inner peace that is chased by Buddhist practitioners of the art. This allows an intervention to be performed before the problem has even truly come to a head.

There are issues with introducing mindfulness to schools, however. How do we encourage children and young people to care? How do we encourage them to understand that mindfulness is a practice that is not simply sitting in the dark with your legs crossed, choking on incense and chanting “om”?

In his dissertation on the subject of mindfulness in schools Richard Burnet a teacher and member of the Mindfulness in Schools project, uses an apt description to show how mindfulness can easily be explained to younger people who would benefit from the practice of mindfulness:

“One of the most succinct and compelling ways of explaining mindfulness to a classroom of adolescents is to show them a short clip from the animated Dreamworks film Kung Fu Panda. It doesn’t describe what you do, it doesn’t give a textbook definition of what it is, nor does it even use the word mindfulness, but it captures the flavour of it in a way that is easily understood.

“Our troubled hero, a panda called Po, is very stressed about life. He stands in the moonlight beneath a blossoming peach tree and laments his many failures. ‘I probably sucked more today than anyone in the history of kung fu — in the history of China — in the history of sucking!’ he declares. His anguished monologue is an engaging compendium of contemporary malaise: he thinks he is rubbish at everything (low self-esteem), he knows he eats too much (eating disorders), he worries a great deal (stress/anxiety).

“Confronted with many difficulties, he is on the verge of giving up his dream of kung-fu glory and going back to making noodles. Thankfully, staff in hand, the wise old turtle Oogway arrives, a kung-fu master approaching the end of his turtle years, and gently reprimands the troubled panda: ‘Quit, don’t quit! Noodles, don’t noodles! You are too concerned about what was and what will be. There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the ‘present’.

“A look of realisation dawns on Po as he understands that he is worrying about what has happened and what might happen rather than simply being in the present moment, itself a gift that we rarely appreciate. Not only do kids understand this, it is not a million miles away from definitions of mindfulness that you will find, particularly in its therapeutic context.”

This explanation cuts straight to the meat of the matter, without the long, tricky words, and perhaps Buddhist terms in Sanskrit or Pāli that they may not understand, which will only serve to turn them away from what could effectively be a technique to reorganise their stressed minds.

A 2013 study printed in the British Journal of Psychiatry by Kuyken et al on the effectiveness of mindfulness in school programmes produced findings that showed “promising evidence of the programme’s acceptability and efficacy.” The study showed that introducing mindfulness into schools produced strong evidence of lowering depression scores and higher test scores after taking part in the programme. The same outcome has been shown in anecdotal evidence of countless accounts by teachers who use mindfulness in PHSE and in their classrooms. We can see that
mindfulness works.

There is an epidemic of mental illness in young minds that is being ignored. Mindfulness may not be the solution to the problem as a whole, but it is certainly one way to address the issue, by giving young people the tools they need in order to overcome the stresses and emotions they face in a period of great and often concerning transition in their lives. As adults, we have opened our minds to mindfulness. It would be selfish of us to deny young minds this opportunity.

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