Mastering mindfulness

Sarah Jane Chrysler and Ben Ingall

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In the last five years GHHS has lost at least one student per year to suicide; each one striking the community and helping to uncover the fact that a mental illness epidemic has struck the area. In an attempt to combat this, local schools have asked students what would benefit them, in terms of helping to reduce stress and Spanish teacher Kirsten Montroy is leading the way.
“Our original thought was to just introduce this topic of being present in one thing at a time and learning how to practice that,” Montroy said. “It started off as destresser ideas. Then somewhere along the way we came across the concept of mindfulness.”
The school improvement board of which Montroy is a member, stumbled upon the idea of mindfulness after gathering a list of ideas from students, to see what they wanted help with, and how they could help.
“I think something important to remember is [that] mindfulness does not equal yoga, it does not equal meditation,” Montroy said. “Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone in anyway.”
When thinking of the concept of mindfulness many people imagine a typical yoga pose or someone meditating for hours on end. Practicing mindfulness, is about being aware, not about how flexible you are or how long you can sit still.
Although yoga and stretching seem to be the most trendy ways to focus on mental and physical well-being, there is more science than ever proving that mindfulness is more than just a trend. Oren Mason M.D. of Attention M.D. often advises his patients to work on practicing a more mindful lifestyle.
“At a center for mindfulness at UCLA they began to investigate it in a real rigorous way,” Mason said. “It turns out that it is very effective across a wide variety of conditions.”
From attention deficit hyperactivity disorder(ADHD) to just plain old stress, there is now evidence pointing toward the fact that even just being mindful of your actions can help daily mental health.
“This time around it is not just a ‘fad’ but it is actually backed by facts and science,” Mason said. “People are looking at it [mindfulness] as not just as a wave of enthusiasm, but saying ‘this stands up to rigorous study.’”
The positive results of this research has made it a concept that schools are starting to implement into students’ lives. This mindfulness movement has taken hold in Grand Haven, at more than just the high school level.
“The elementaries buildings are working with the kids to teach them how to react, asking how they feel,” GHHS principal Tracy Wilson said. “We want to teach them to avoid those freak-out situations.”
With the events of the last five years, and the loss of high school students to mental illnesses, it has become a bigger priority than ever to take action against these issues. The goal is to stop the problems before they happen.
“We as a district, when we started digging in as a mental health advisory board, mindfulness kept coming up as a practice,” Wilson said. “A proactive and preventative measure for mental health issues instead of a reactive.”
The goal of these school improvement lessons on the topic are meant to help guide students toward a healthier lifestyle, know where to get help if it is needed and to break down misconceptions about mindfulness being only a spiritual thing.
“The concept of mindfulness is not meditation,” Montroy said. “Mindfulness is learning how to be present in one thing at a time and I’ve been really, really considering it in my everyday life.”
Students are craving stress relief, that is not just limited to GAPS. The district is working harder than ever before to help students and teachers maintain positive mental wellbeing.
“There’s been so many different names for stopping and taking a breath,” Wilson said. “It’s an individual practice that people need to do, we owe it to our kids to teach them how to work through stressful situations and divert the crisis from happening.”

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