PARK CITY — Lori Drivdahl entered her classroom at Ecker Hill Middle School just like she had done hundreds of times before, but today she had misplaced a pile of papers and was “running around crazily” to find it, she recalled.
A teacher for 27 years, she did something she hadn’t done before. She stopped thinking about the papers, put her hand on her belly, and told her class, “I’m going to take an anchor breath.” Some kids giggled, while others burst into applause.
Drivdahl had learned to calm herself down in the moment, something she was striving to teach her students as part of Park City School District’s new plan to fight mental illness through "mindfulness" — teaching students techniques like breathing and meditation to calm themselves and control their emotions.
The district initiated the program to address the underlying causes of a trend affecting the state. Teen suicide in Utah jumped 141 percent from 2011 to 2015 according to the Utah Department of Health, and the state's Student Health and Risk Prevention data showed 24.9 percent of Utah teens had depressive symptoms in 2017.
Davis School District implemented a similar Mindful Schools program more than a year ago to address anxiety and depression among its students. But the Utah schools are not launching into untested territory by using mindfulness techniques to combat mental illness and its sometimes fatal consequences. The Ann Arbor Public Schools in Michigan have been using the methods to address youth mental illness for 10 years.
“Just putting Band-Aids on all day long is not doing the trick,” said Amy McLoughin, a school counselor in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, in reference using solely talk therapy with students. “We really have to be in a situation where we have to start learning very quick coping skills to helping students when they’re not with us be able to tackle these problems on their own.”
In early 2016, two junior high school students in the Park City School District died from drug overdoses. Following the tragedy, the school district set out to find a program to combat mental illness and behavior issues, such as substance abuse.
Ben Belnap, the associate superintendent for Student Wellness in the PCSD, was hired to oversee this program. He said the biggest concerns of the PCSD are substance abuse and anxiety.
“I also think that sometimes adults in general discount a lot of substance abuse to that ‘Oh, they’ll outgrow it. It’s what they do’ — when oftentimes there’s a greater issue of self-medication,” said Belnap, who is a licensed psychologist. “It’s my belief that the majority of major substance abuse problems are an ineffective or inappropriate coping strategy for greater underlying issues.”
Mindfulness is the process of bringing one’s attention to the present moment, allowing time to reflect between an emotion and a response. PCSD is hoping to teach this process to its students so they can learn to better cope with their emotions and adjust their behavior, instead of reacting negatively to anxiety and stress with drug use or other harmful behavior.
Ann Arbor’s introduction to mindfulness was also in response to student suicide. In 2007, after two suicides in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, people in the community sought help from the Depression Center at the University of Michigan about suicide awareness.
AAPS and the university created a three-pronged program to address the mental health of students in select schools — starting with suicide response and awareness campaigns that led to training for school counselors in cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness. The mindfulness portion of the plan began in 2013 with a program called TRAILS (Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students).
“It doesn't mean we won’t lose students to suicide and accidents, and we won’t have kids who are dealing with mental health issues. We just want to be better prepared at supporting our kids and our families when those things happen,” said Paul DeAngelis, the executive director high school education of Ann Arbor Public Schools, referring to the effectiveness of their program.
Davis School District was concerned about anxiety and depression among students when it teamed up with Davis Behavioral Health a year and a half ago to teach mindfulness in schools. Citing the risk prevention survey data, Christy Hutchinson, the K-12 prevention coordinator for the district's Student and Family Resources Department said 26 percent of Davis School District students felt depressive symptoms in the past year.
In Utah, 25 percent of students felt depressive symptoms, according to the survey data. And at the national level, 1 in 5 youth have anxiety or a mood disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Hutchinson believes the Mindful Schools program will specifically address mental health concerns in the district.
“We do very well teaching our kids to escape problems and escape life. Mindfulness helps them cope with where they are,” she said.
Equipped to cope
After completing the eight-week Mindful Schools online training and instruction from contracted local meditation and yoga teachers, Ecker Hill teachers Drivdahl, Lara Rude and Jessica Scheetz began teaching mindfulness to their students during the last week November.
They are about a third of the way through the 16-week course where they slip in a five- to 10-minute mindfulness exercise to their classes. For example, Drivdahl might teach a breathing exercise before a math test.
“There’s definitely been some giggles and a little bit of distance, but some of the kids are also really into it,” said Rude, a special education teacher. “I think we will see the benefits. I just think it will take time to see that.”
The teachers guide their students through each mindfulness exercise by reading off a script from the program curriculum. The first lesson is called mindful bodies.
“It’s just being aware of how your body is,” Drivdahl said.
The next week, students learned mindful breathing. “It’s just paying attention to your breath and where it feels and where you feel it in your body,” she said.
Scheetz, who teaches English language arts, said she has yet to see how mindfulness has affected her students academically but sees other benefits of “students becoming more present and therefore ideally less stressed about all the other things going on in other classes.”
At Davis, the process is similar, but in many of the 18 elementary schools that have adopted mindfulness, have started using the book “Sitting Still Like a Frog: Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and Their Parents).”
The teachers play the CD track. A high chime rings out and is followed by a calm but nondescript female voice that fills the classroom: “This exercise teaches you to sit with the attention of a frog. Stopping whatever you’re doing in order to focus and observe is the beginning of every mindfulness exercise.”
In Ann Arbor schools, instead of focusing solely on mindfulness, they teach it along with cognitive behavioral therapy. In 2013, Ann Arbor schools started using the TRAILS program that pairs school counselors with professional psychologists trained in cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness. They lead anxiety and depression groups where students learn skills, such as yoga, progressive relaxation and stress tolerance, to combat feelings of anxiety and depression.
“We view it as having a toolbox,” said my McLoughlin, a school counselor at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor. “We give them as many things as possible so that when they are in a situation where they’re feeling depressed or anxious, they can pull out one of the tools.”
The program isn’t implemented in classrooms like it is in Park City or Davis, but is open to students who want to attend the group, which meets once a week during school hours.
Stephanie Salazar, the outreach and education program manager for the University of Michigan Depression Center said a limitation faced by these programs is the funding to hire consultants.
Currently, the Ann Arbor program is funded through grants and philanthropy through the Depression Center at the University of Michigan, the Park City School District by a grant from the Park City Education Foundation, and the Davis School District by Davis Behavioral Health that provides two mindfulness teachers to train Davis School District staff and covers the costs of teachers to take the Mindful Schools training.
Impact inside, outside school
Belnap said mindfulness is often called a superpower that helps people take control of their immediate circumstances.
“(Mindfulness) helps us to not just be pinballs being bounced around from one thing to another, reacting to this and reacting to that. It helps us to stop ... and look at our thoughts and say ‘I’m feeling angry right now. Why am I feeling angry? What does being angry feel like inside physically?’ Just sort of pump the breaks.”
Two years ago, the Davis School District Davis Behavioral Health conducted a pilot program implementing mindfulness in South Weber Elementary School and found mindfulness helped students’ ability to concentrate and identify and regulate their emotions.
Their survey of students and teachers concluded that 82 percent of the students in the pilot program said they would continue using mindfulness. Sixty-two percent said mindfulness helped them focus in class better, and 54 percent of students said mindfulness helps them avoid fights.
A majority of teachers (92 percent) said they personally benefited from the program and 82 percent said they wanted to continue the program.4 comments on this story
And Hutchinson cited a decrease in disciplinary actions, bullying, and stress and has helped increase students’ attention spans and ability to absorb information.
Another benefit is the impact it can have outside of the school setting. She’s heard stories of students saying they used mindfulness to calm their anxious feelings on airplanes and to understand their feelings of frustration and anger.
“That’s what you hope for with prevention, period — that when you’re teaching the teachers and the students, that it filters out into the community as well and makes that larger impact,” Hutchinson said.