Therapies — 03 February 2016

A meditation app is introducing mindfulness to a new generation of Australians via the classroom and helping to address the current spike in depression and anxiety among young people.

“We would like to take you on a little journey to the land of mindfulness, a place inside you where you are safe and strong, a place where you can put a big smile on your mind.”

These soothing words, delivered via the Smiling Mind app, are the opening lines of ‘The Bubble Journey’, the first step of a guided meditation program helping children as young as seven overcome anxiety and depression.

“One in four young people at secondary school have a psychological problem, one in seven in primary,” says Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, a leading child psychologist and a Smiling Mind board member. Their anxieties look a lot more adult than those that plagued children a generation ago. “The major issues they worry about are coping with stress, coping with school, and body image and depression,” he says.

In our hyper-connected world where young people’s brains are constantly being asked to multi-task, this single focus gives the brain time to rest.

A tool increasingly called upon to help kids address these anxieties is mindfulness, the practice of focusing the mind on a central point. “You shut out all the psychological chatter, that inner talk that we’re bombarded by every day,” says Dr Carr-Gregg. When we practise mindfulness, says Smiling Mind co-founder Jane Martino, “we’re more productive and we’re more present in the moment, which means we’re having better relationships and connections. We’re really listening to conversations, so we see an increased level of self-awareness and emotional reactivity. We also have higher levels of empathy, really being able to put ourselves in other people’s positions.”

Smiling Mind’s guided meditations use age appropriate imagery, the breath as a glowing bubble for young children, or for teens, the journey of a piece of fruit from the farm to their hands, to help the listener focus on a single point.

Smiling Mind’s guided meditations use age appropriate imagery, the breath as a glowing bubble for young children, or for teens, the journey of a piece of fruit from the farm to their hands, to help the listener focus on a single point. In our hyper-connected world where young people’s brains are constantly being asked to multi-task, this single focus gives the brain time to rest. “It doesn’t mean that they have to switch off social media and emails forever,” says Martino. “It just gives them a break, and that break, just like exercise or eating well, is healthy for the function of our brain.”

Concerns about the state of mental health in Australia, particularly among young people, gave Martino and her co-founder James Tutton, both parents of young children, the initial idea to create a meditation app. Their goal, says Martino, was to embed meditation into the fabric of society, as has been done with other areas of health including nutrition and physical education. Their question was: “if one in five people have a mental health issue this year, how can we have the health of the mind taken as seriously as we do physical health?”

The major issues they worry about are coping with stress, coping with school, and body image and depression.

The answer the pair came up with was Smiling Mind, a free and easily accessible method of delivering meditation to young people in a format with which kids are comfortable. Divided into age groups, the guided meditations were developed by psychologists and vary in length from ‘bite-sized’ one-minute body scans to extended meditations lasting 45 minutes. “We’ve really tried to keep it simple and easy to use so it was something people could adapt and embed into their lives,” says Martino.

Five years ago mindfulness was not the buzzword it is today and many people Martino and Tutton approached were skeptical of the idea. “Very few people thought it would work,” recalls Martino. Many had doubts about mixing meditation and technology. Today the app has over 1 million regular users, while the education program has had 10,000 downloads. The feedback from users has been very positive, says Martino. “We get emails daily from parents, young people themselves, and teachers saying what a difference it’s making in their lives and their classrooms.”

 

This article first appeared on ‘SBS‘ on 2 Feb 2016

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