Photo: Mrinalini Nayak. Ellie Cabassa practices affirmations with students.

Students practice breathing exercises, sound therapy and positive affirmations to channel their thoughts and emotions in these difficult times. 

Adriel Cruz, 12, sat in a busy classroom one afternoon with a metal bowl in his hand, eyes closed, listening intently to the striking of the bowl and aligning his breathing to drown out the voices around him.

When he opened his eyes, he felt calm and in control of his emotions. He reported feeling much happier than before. 

This is how a middle school in the Bronx is attempting to address post-pandemic stress and anxiety in its students. 

P.S/I.S 218, in the borough’s Highbridge section, has partnered with WHEDco, a Bronx-based non-profit, to provide their students with after school mindfulness classes. The class includes activities like breathing exercises, sound therapy and positive affirmations. Students from grades 6-8 have been attending mindfulness classes every Friday since school started in September. 

Students’ mental health in schools was already a cause for concern even before the pandemic began. In 2019, the C.D.C. reported that almost 20 % of students had seriously considered suicide, up from 17.4% in 2017. Since then, with the stress brought by the pandemic, the mental health problem of young people has become a significant public health issue.

A recent audit report by the New York State Comptroller’s office found that the New York City Department of Education was not providing schools with the recommended mental health support, which means each publicly funded school must have a ratio of one social worker or counselor for every 250 students. 

The education department responded that it maintains this ratio throughout all school districts – but the comptroller’s office reaffirmed its findings.  The New York City Department of Education is the largest public school system in the country. 

Given the rising concerns about mental health among students, the case for mindfulness appears strong.  When asked about their mental health, most students say they are tired of answering these questions as they do not have answers. With mindfulness, they aren’t expected to provide answers – just get in touch with their thoughts and emotions.

”Maybe they’ve always lived this way and didn’t know how to put it into words or how to express it properly. And I think with this program, it’s allowing them to just express themselves without fear of judgment,” said Bryant Galan, group leader at WHEDco. 

The partnership began when WHEDco brought in ‘I Have A Purpose,’ a mental health consultancy, to train its staff. Galan thought it was so impactful that he suggested WHEDco start a program specifically for students. 

WHEDco runs after-school programs at two other schools.  But P.S.218 is the only school to have access to the mindfulness sessions. Serving over 1000 students, with 450 students at PS 218, WHEDco aims to help students develop skills that aid their academic success. In addition to the mindfulness sessions, students get help with ELA and STEM subjects, art and even physical education. 

“We start with some sound healing and sound therapy,” said lead instructor Ellie Cabassa.

Cabassa assigns different instruments to students during class, and encourages them to find their own connection to the instrument and their breath. “We let them know that the sounds, just like their thoughts and emotions, come and go. So we don’t have to hold on to it. “

Breath control is important in mindfulness exercises. “Kids were always stressed by even a little bit of rules, like wearing masks,” said Dr. Samuel Menahem, adjunct assistant professor of Clinical Psychology at Teachers College – Columbia University. Menahem leads a class called Spiritual and Traditional Psychotherapy. 

In certain mindfulness practices, people just need to sit down, put their feet flat on the floor, close their eyes and just breathe. “It eventually calms you down, letting you begin to see how your moods are affected by your thoughts,” said Menahem. 

The past three years have been challenging for all students but particularly for those in underserved neighborhoods. Not only are they behind academically, but studies have shown that their social and emotional growth is also adversely affected. 

So how does one measure the impact of these programs? According to Menahem, one could measure the blood pressure and pulse, before and after the sessions to track impact. 

“Though WHEDco is a data-informed organization, the addition of mindfulness programming is rooted in intuition based on the needs of our students. Now more than ever, they need to develop coping skills,” said WHEDco Director Jamie Yellen. 

Students’ reactions offer some indication the training is having a positive effect.

“I liked the instruments, because they were so relaxing. And I felt like my mind was somewhere else,” said Adriel. “Some other kids here are really stressed, this teaches them to pause.”

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