Can Yoga and Meditation Fix the College Mental Health Crisis?

College counseling centers are strapped to provide the resources students need. New yoga and meditation programs may help alleviate that burden.
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According to a study conducted by the American Psychological Association, Gen Z is more stressed than any other generation. Zoom classes and overwhelming course workloads aside, college students are facing fears about their futures, their health in the face of a global pandemic, while pressured to get good grades and carry on like "normal." Yoga can help.

Stressed man

In a study conducted by the Yale Child Study Center and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, researchers found that the SKY Campus Happiness program—a set of classes aimed at teaching students and faculty members how to meditate, breathe, practice yoga, and develop social connections—improved six areas that students may struggle with, notably depression, stress, mental health, mindfulness, positive affect, and social connectedness, while other programs only produced benefits in one of those areas or none at all. The program—which is currently being used at 58 different college campuses—uses meditation, breathing techniques and community-based methods designed specifically for college students.

And students could use the help. The number of college students struggling with mental health has been on the rise. According to the organization Active Minds, a nonprofit that supports mental health awareness and education for young adults, 39 percent of college students experience a significant mental health issue. In 2017, a study published by Psychiatric Services found that the percentage of college students with lifetime mental health diagnoses increased by 14 percent from 2007 to 2017. And an APA survey reports that 61 percent of students who sought counseling on campus reported feelings of anxiety, while 49 percent said they were depressed. SKY equips students to better handle those burdens.

See also  5 Ways Yoga Benefits Your Mental Health

Study Results: SKY Campus Happiness Program

The study assigned 135 undergraduate students to three different programs aimed at improving wellbeing, one of which was the SKY Campus Happiness program. The subjects were tested on six factors contributing to their mental health over an eight-week period. Researchers found that the SKY Campus Happiness program resulted in the greatest overall improvement in all six factors, compared to the other two programs—Foundations of Emotional Intelligence, which only benefitted mindfulness, and Koru Mindfulness, which showed no change.

The cornerstone of the SKY Campus Happiness program is the SKY Breath Meditation, which features the breathwork of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga [which involves several types of cyclical breathing patterns], says the program’s national director Annelesi Richmond. According to Richmond, all of the programs are based on the Art of Living Foundation’s programming, which was designed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. These types of resiliency training programs could be a valuable tool for addressing the mental health crisis on university campuses, the researchers who conducted the study say.

Kamaira Clifton, a recent graduate from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was first introduced to the program during her junior year of college. Clifton, who recently earned a Master’s Degree in Public Administration, says that after she attended her first retreat through SKY Campus Happiness, she felt happier and her grades improved.

“I couldn’t believe how calm I felt after the first time I experienced the SKY Breath Meditation,” she says. “I don’t know if I remember ever feeling that calm before. Learning how to do that on my own was amazing.”

However, even as the need for mental health services on campuses increases, colleges find themselves unable to meet that demand. A 2017 survey conducted by STAT found that college students across the country were waiting weeks for a counseling appointment. The lack of adequate staffing numbers has forced some universities to find alternative programs for students.

See also The Science of Breathing

Yoga classes, meditations, and mindfulness trainings have all been used as ways for students to seek support outside of a traditional counseling appointment. At Cornell University, Cornell Health sponsors “Let’s Meditate,” a free, guided mindfulness meditation series. Meanwhile, the University of Southern California’s yoga resource guide, Yoga USC, lists yoga-related activities for students, which include meditation series and virtual yoga classes.

These offerings typically occur in person—at a campus recreation center or at the counseling center itself. However, as students return to campus in the fall, many of these offerings will be done virtually, making room for even more students to engage with these resources.

The University of Washington has moved its meditation and yoga classes online, offering virtual versions of popular classes, including “Meditation for Stress-Free Living” and “Yoga for Healing.”

Danny Arguetty, the mindfulness manager at the University of Washington, said that the school plans to continue to offer virtual sessions, even if in-person classes don't return. Arguetty introduced a new class format during the spring quarter, called “tripled M” (mindfulness, meditation and movement), where students engaged in 20 minutes of movement and 10 minutes of meditation. The 30-minute class helped students relieve stress but in a short amount of time, he says.

Some Triple M classes had participation rates as high as 70 to 80 people, which he thinks was a result of it being available virtually. 

“I think that there’s still a beautiful part of people gathering and healing in a space together, but I also think the online format, on the other end of the spectrum, provided a really safe space to students, as they were able to be in their own environment, which was unexpected,” Arguetty says. 

See also Yoga and Mindfulness Resources for College Students