by Arnav Harve, Staff Writer, December 2021

“Mindfulness”—five years ago, the term and the practice were rarely invoked on campus. Now, both have begun to take on an increased role in the school. From assembly speeches to “Come and Learn Mindfulness” (CALM) meetings to the entire Class III Personal Development (PD) curriculum, mindfulness has been continually emphasized by the administration. As student stress remains pervasive and many in our community struggle with severe mental health difficulties, the question emerges: is the school’s emphasis on mindfulness actually beneficial for students?

Head of PD and Clinical Psychologist Dr. Rick Wilson defined mindfulness as “the practice of observing what your thoughts are, instead of being swept up in them.” According to Wilson, learning mindfulness and meditation can increase academic performance by reducing performance related stress and therefore allowing better access to memory and learning “That’s why we were very intentional about having a PD class that just focuses on mindfulness. What often gets marginalized in our pursuit for excellence is self-care,” Wilson said.

Joshua Levine (Class III) has had mostly positive experiences with mindfulness. “If you are really busy, sometimes it’s nice if it’s just a couple of minutes to sit and have some time to think to yourself.” However, he felt that when prolonged, mindfulness can sometimes feel boring or a waste of time.

While students like Levine understand the benefits of mindfulness, they have mixed feelings about how the school has promoted these practices. Celia Cheng (Class I) believes that while mindfulness is an important tool for students, the school’s messaging around mindfulness is flawed. “I think [the administration] went into it very strongly. They market mindfulness as a solution for everything, and I actually do think it takes away a lot of the attention that could be given elsewhere, because mindfulness doesn’t work for everyone,” Cheng said.

Wilson believes that mindfulness can be helpful to everyone: “We want to give wellness tools that anyone can use, regardless of where you might be struggling, regardless of if you have a diagnosable mental illness or are just someone who gets stressed a lot because of their schoolwork.” According to Wilson, the school is not designed to handle diagnosable mental illnesses, so the emphasis on mindfulness is intended to help no matter where students land on the mental health spectrum.

How can the school better support the mental health of students? Joshua Levine (Class III) believes that while stress is to be expected at an institution like Nobles, the school can do more to limit student stress. “[When] you’re coming to Nobles, you know you’re coming for a rigorous education, you know it’s not going to be easy. At the same time, I think the school can make it in a way where students don’t necessarily feel as stressed as often,” Levine said. He expressed interest in creating more time for mental breaks within the schedule, a sentiment echoed by Wilson who believes that “adequate space to recover” from a stressful day is crucial for the mental health of students. “I think we could do a better job with our schedule, and there are people [at school] who are exploring that to keep high-intensity learning and adequate recovery,” Wilson said. 

Cheng believes that changing how the school communicates mental health would be a key force in adequately supporting students. For example, Cheng thinks that the school’s efforts to teach mindfulness in Class III PD can be ineffective. “Having [mindfulness] in every class kind of sets the idea that that’s the only time you have to do mindfulness. […] By framing it as a class activity, people aren’t going to do it as much,” Cheng said.

Wilson added that in his seven years teaching PD, one student concern he has heard many times is that mindfulness is a waste of time that could be better used doing homework. Wilson believes that mindfulness should occur during a class period, as a way to challenge the constant student need to keep working. However, he acknowledged the necessity of a balance between mindfulness and student work time: “My attitude with the class is ‘Let’s meditate for ten minutes, and then you can use the time to do your work,” Wilson said.

Finally, Cheng, Levine, and Wilson all believe that there needs to be a cultural shift within the school. Wilson emphasized the struggle of promoting mindfulness and emotional health in a school culture of excellence and drive. “The very culture of this place fights against [mindfulness] in some ways. [In] the very nature of achieving at a high level, […] we almost feed unhealthiness,” Wilson said. Cheng pointed to another facet of school culture, and how the administration could rise above it: “I think it would be great if we made mandatory check-ins with the counselors every so often. I think a lot of students are scared to go to the counselors because there’s still a stigma around getting help,” Cheng said.

In the midst of the Quarter II, one of the most stressful times of the year, mindfulness can be an important tool to combat the stress of academic and extracurricular life. However, it is clear that the school must do more than mindfulness education to adequately support the mental health of students.