I feel that most humans in the 21st century are experiencing mental health issues.
I know I am.
It’s pretty hard to be a human in a world that’s not so human anymore. We are not made for this speed, sensory bombardment, being switched on and on demand all the time.
Young people are feeling it no less than us:
>> One and a half billion children worldwide have been out of school due to the pandemic, leading to an education crisis.
>> In the last three years, the likelihood of young people having a mental health problem has increased by 50 percent.
>> The World Health Organization lists over 200 forms of mental illnesses.
>> Mental health statistics reveal one in six children has been diagnosed with a mental health issue.
>> Globally, five children in a classroom of 30 are likely to have a mental health problem.
>> Even in developed countries, such as the United States or the United Kingdom, 75 percent of young people with mental health problems aren’t getting the help they need.
>> 50 percent of all mental health conditions start by 14 years of age, but most cases are undetected and untreated.
>> Mental health conditions account for 16 percent of the global burden of disease and injury in people aged 10 to 19 years.
>> Globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents.
>> Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in 15 to 19-year-olds.
>> The consequences of not addressing adolescent mental health conditions extend to adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health, and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults.
>> Younger people showed higher levels of depression and anxiety due to coronavirus, in comparison with older adults.
There is a crisis here, don’t you think?
Young people need to learn healthy coping skills early on to be better able to navigate problems later in life and thrive as adults.
So, how can we help?
In yoga, we believe that it is easier and more beneficial to start to work with the body than to address the complexities of the mind. Movement is mood enhancing. And movement is life. When we stop moving, we start sending our body the message that we don’t want to live.
Mindfulness techniques can provide children and teens with helpful strategies to deal with a variety of mental health issues and life challenges they face, such as depression, anxiety, bullying, eating disorders, trauma, and self-esteem problems.
With their relatively short life experience, children and teens lack the skills to put life events, discomforts, disagreements, and other challenges in perspective. It is hard for them to see how in a day, week, month, or year’s time this may not seem as significant, and that good may even come out of it.
As grown-ups, we have learnt to put things in perspective, and we know that some things can be fixed with the right effort, while other things just need time to heal or come back into order. Those same events may make a young person feel like it’s “the end of the world” and that all hope is lost. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and even suicide.
We are obsessive thinkers (60,000 thoughts a day on average), and we get attached and fully identify with every thought and feeling that arises inside of us. Even though those thoughts and feelings are impermanent, and they move and change rapidly, without mindfulness skills we are totally consumed by them, many times to a point where we may feel helpless.
Mindfulness can help a lot in creating the distance necessary from our thoughts and emotions to be able to process events in a healthier way. Being able to observe our thoughts and feelings and identify them gives us the power to be free of them, and even the power to change them at times. Knowledge is power. When we don’t know our inner world, we are controlled by everything that rises and falls within it. When we are more familiar with it, we can more easily surf its waves.
Yoga and mindfulness can help a lot as a daily opportunity to take a step back from being caught in our thoughts, have a respite from this storm, see the big picture, and land back into ourselves with a bit more self-compassion.
When we get stuck in our minds, we feel the weight of the burden. We really need to lighten up and play. Fun can help shake us out of our darkness and bring us back to the light.
A few years ago, for my 40th birthday, I took some time away from our busy life for self-nurture. I went to Peru and spent a month with Shamans in the beautiful Andes. The lessons were simple and deep, and many of them are relevant and practical not just for adults, but also for children.
The most influential teaching I took from that month is the idea that maybe there is not good and bad in our lives; rather there is only heavy and light—and we can dispel the heaviness by bringing in more lightness. We are not doomed by “bad” things that are happening, or by “bad” things we are feeling, or by having been “bad” people; instead, we have the power to make things lighter by transforming them with lighter thoughts, lighter words, and lighter actions.
As a child, my parents would say, “Make elephants into mice.” I think that in English the saying is, “Make mountains into molehills.”
4. Sense of Purpose.
There comes a time when we ask ourselves, “What for?” If we don’t have a good answer for this, we are lost. Finding a purpose or a meaning, a “why,” big or small, is essential for our mental health. This is why I always obsess with making the world a better place. I need that meaning. When we fill our lives with mostly meaningless things, such as scrolling down TikTok, or when we can’t be of service to anyone, like during lockdown, life starts to feel empty and meaningless.
We often get caught up in trying to do as much as we can, as well as we can, to please as many people as we can. We don’t take time to enjoy anything. We don’t take enough time to listen to ourselves and to love ourselves. Yoga and mindfulness can help us do that.
I recommend reading the book, Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He is a holocaust survivor and psychologist who claims that the only people who survived the concentration camps like he did were those who could find meaning even in that darkest inhuman place.
Ten activities to practice with children:
1. How am I?
>> Have a discussion with the group about mental health. Share from the above and from your own experience. Allow time for the children to share from their hearts if they want to.
>> Sit down in a circle, then ask everyone to close their eyes and take a moment to ask themselves this important question: “How am I today?” Guide the children to feel into themselves, peel a few superficial layers back, and be sincere with themselves. It seems like just an ordinary question that people ask each other all the time, and they do, but people don’t really listen to the answer, and also people mostly don’t give the truthful answer, and definitely not a thoughtful one. So the answer ends up being meaningless.
>> When I ask myself this same question, I actually take the time to contemplate and think and feel, how am I really doing today? I actually take a moment to stop and access my inner situation. It’s important because when I really know how I’m feeling, I get to take full responsibility for my feelings and over my reactions to everything that comes at me from other people and from the world around me. Instead of blaming other people for my reactions, I know that most of those reactions are actually coming from my own inner state of mind and heart. And this also gives me the ability to be conscious enough to choose to react in a different or in a more kind way.
2. Personal Weather Report.
>> Have each child summon the weather report that best describes their feelings at that moment; sunny, rainy, foggy, stormy, calm, windy, tsunami? Each child in turn shares their personal weather report. If you wish, they can even combine it with a yoga pose or movement for everyone to repeat with them.
>> This activity allows children to observe their present state without overly identifying with their emotions. We know that feelings will change like the weather. They can’t change the weather outside, and sometimes we can’t change our emotions or feelings right away either. All we can change is how we relate to them. “I am not the downpour, but I notice that it is raining.”
3. Sensory Poetry.
>> This activity is fantastic for helping children to become more aware of their emotions and the experiences that make them feel a certain way, by giving their emotions a colour, a sound, a smell, a taste, and a texture.
>> Give each child a piece of paper and a pencil and ask them to write a little short poem about their feelings such as, “Happiness is bright yellow. It sounds like birds singing. It smells like the rainforest. It tastes like mangoes. It feels like ocean waves on your skin.”
>> Encourage the children to share their poetry; this will help to teach them to recognize, respect, and show empathy toward their friend’s emotions and related experiences.
4. Emotional Facial Wave.
>> This is a good way to release the emotions by making them a bit more dramatic than usual and even funny.
>> Sit in pairs facing each other, or in a circle knee to knee, and allow the children to take it in turns passing an emotion in the form of a facial expression, and maybe even a sound, to one another. The emotions are passed in a wave, one person after the other, completing a full circle before another person takes a turn to choose an emotion. This can be funny, but it can also be confronting, even frightening, or sad.
5. The Rainbow Yoga Wave Sun Dance.
>> Begin by doing a pose. The person on your right copies the same movement. The next person continues, and the next, until the pose goes around the whole circle.
>> Use your imagination, invent new poses and sequences, and let others be the leaders too. Keep it light and active, and use it as a tool to lift up the mood. Music can help with that too.
6. Name that Feeling.
>> This is a game about naming what we are feeling and where we feel it in our bodies.
>> With the group, write down as many emotions as you (or they) can think of on separate slips of paper. Put each strip of paper in a bag or a bowl. Explain to your students that our emotions are like storms that pass through our bodies and if we can notice these storms brewing in our bodies, we can tame the storm, so it can pass through us more gently and quickly if we choose.
>> Start by demonstrating how to play the game. Pick a piece of paper with an emotion on it. Make sure the others can’t see through the paper (perhaps cover it with your hand). Strike a pose or do a movement that shows how that emotion makes your body, face, and heart change. For example, anger might make your shoulders high, fists clenched, face tight and pinched. See if they can guess what emotion you are trying to convey, saying things like “warmer” or “colder.” If it is an unusual word, you can give them the first letter, or a clue.
>> Describe where you feel this emotion right now: I feel this emotion in my face, belly, legs, and so on.
>> After one or two times of you leading, have one of the students who guessed your emotion come up and act out another emotion. Once they’ve assumed the position, you can ask the “actor” where they feel this emotion in their body. Then ask the audience what emotion they think is being shown. Bring up the guesser, or a person who has not yet gone to take the next turn.
7. Put Things in Perspective.
>> In this practice, ask the children to sit tall, close their eyes, and get in touch with their feelings. Ask them to try and remember what may have caused them to feel like that.
>> Obviously, things won’t always go our way. When things go wrong, we can use the power of mindfulness to release some of the negative emotions that we may be feeling due to the failure or setback that we just experienced. After a negative event, we can put things in perspective by remembering that every difficulty carries within it the seeds of an equal or greater benefit.
>> Guide them through these mindful observations:
“What’s good about this?”
“What can I learn from this?”
“How can I benefit from this?”
“Is there something about this situation that I can be grateful for?”
“Can this somehow make the world a better place?”
>> Mindfulness creates structural and functional changes in the brain that support a healthy response to stress. It strengthens the calming, rational prefrontal cortex, and reduces activity in the instinctive, impulsive amygdala. It also strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. When this connection is strong, the calming prefrontal cortex will have more of a hand in decisions and behaviour.
8. A Letter to Yourself.
>> Ask the students to write letters to their past selves based on the following writing prompts: “What do you wish you knew prior to the COVID-19 pandemic? What advice would have made this past year better for you? What do you want your future self to remember about this time in your life?”
>> Reflective prompts like these encourage students to acknowledge challenges and brainstorm solutions for managing their own struggles.
>> We typically focus on the negatives when we’re stressed, so it’s important to maintain a growth mindset. By highlighting areas where students have grown, we can focus on the positives and acknowledge how challenging times present opportunities for learning. Asking students what they have learned about themselves in the past year encourages students to engage in self-reflection and be able to self-care.
9. Changing the Channel.
>> This can be done seated or lying down. Close your eyes, think about your inner world as a television show you are watching. What will you put on your happy, peaceful, relaxed TV channel? Be specific. Explore all of the senses (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting), and look for details and feelings.
>> Now, tune into the content of your current thoughts. Identify the thoughts as calm, happy, sad, worried, angry, and so on. This is the channel you are currently watching. If the current thoughts feel negative, then imagine using a remote control to deliberately switch the channel to your happy channel, and imagine watching what you have previously decided to be on that channel.
>> Use this process whenever you have negative or unpleasant thoughts or feelings. Also, instead of changing the channel, you can continue to watch the movie with all of its imperfections, but create a happy ending to it. Stuff happens to everyone in life. You can’t really change people or events. Your freedom and power lie in how you choose to interpret, and how you choose to respond to those events or people. You are free to make your world a happy place.
10. Self-Hug Breath.
>> A yoga class is a safe space. As the adult leading the group, we are there for the children and we can offer to stay after the class for as long as needed if anyone wants or needs to talk more. Sometimes though, they can’t rely on having others there to soothe them, but they are always able to help themselves when in need.
>> Ask the children to sit tall, take a deep breath in, and spread their arms to the sides. As they exhale, they bring their arms back in and around themselves to give themselves a hug. They can sigh or make any noise that makes them feel pleasant as they do this. And repeat it, a lot.
When someone has any kind of mental health issue, every little bit of support counts. It is putting one foot in front of the other. We may not have all of the solutions, but we can definitely help.