College students returning to campus is a stress for many. Containing Covid-19 as students return from all over the country and assuring proper social distancing measures and mask wearing is one component, but helping support their mental health needs is another entirely. This is, in part, because some college students come to campus already in treatment needing to continue care and others develop mental health symptoms for the first time. Additionally, mental health has significantly worsened for young adults over the pandemic. University counseling centers could not meet the demand long before Covid-19, and can’t be expected to today.
Emma Seppälä PhD, author of the Happiness Project and Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism explains, “there [has been a] mental health crisis on college campuses for the last decade…University campuses, psychiatric and counseling services are overburdened…[and] suicide is the second leading cause of death for 18 to 25 year olds. We’re facing a dramatic situation and our current forms of treatment are not meeting needs. We also can’t meet everyone’s needs, because it’s just not financially possible.”
In other words, she emphasizes that hiring more counseling and psychiatric staff is simply not sustainable and can’t be the answer. Instead, one possible solution might be in the very air we breathe. Quite literally. At least that is according to two new studies, one authored by Seppälä herself.
The first, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, evaluated the impact of three different well-being programs (mindfulness based stress reduction, emotional intelligence, and Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) campus happiness) on 135 undergraduates at Yale University over the course of a semester (30 hours) compared to a control group. SKY Campus Happiness, which was developed by the Art of Living Foundation, is the most comprehensive of the three interventions and includes a breathing technique called SKY Breath Meditation, yoga, social connection, and service activities. According to Annelies Richmond, the founding Director of the program and the Director of Teacher Training for the Art of Living Foundation, the course has been taught since 2010 and is now taught on 58 university campuses. The study found that of all of the interventions, SKY Campus Happiness had the most success, with students showing improvement in all measured domains including stress, depression, mental health, social connection, mindfulness, and positive emotion. Here are a few videos of the students sharing their experiences with the program. Of the other two interventions, only the Emotional Intelligence program had any significant effects, with students showing improved mindfulness, or the ability of students to be present in the moment, for students.
The other study compared the effects of an intensive four-day, 18 hour, SKY Campus Happiness workshop to a specifically designed program to serve as a control called Wisdom on Wellness (WOW) that focused on cognitive approaches to stress management. 108 undergraduate and graduate students were randomized into the two programs and afterwards, while all participants felt more socially connected, only those who were in the SKY Campus Happiness group had significant decreases in perceived stress levels, sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, and improvement in well-being measures like conscientiousness, self-esteem, and life satisfaction. On the induced stress tests, both groups had improvements in heart rate during and after the experiments, but only the SKY Campus Happiness group developed a resiliency against anticipatory stress, which means their heart rates did not go up as much when they knew the stress was coming. This study also demonstrated longitudinal findings, with well being still improved even 3 months later.
Dr. Seppälä who is the lead author of Yale study feels beyond simply its’ comprehensiveness in comparison to the other interventions, the breathing technique taught in the Sky Campus Happiness program is a key component of its success. She says not only can breathing calm you down in minutes by tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) instead of the sympathetic (fight and flight) one, but research has shown breathing is also directly related to your emotions. She explains that when we are anxious or mad, we breathe fast and shallow, and when we are relaxed, we breathe slow and deep. In turn, when we learn to change our breathing patterns, we can then change our emotions. Annelies adds, “It seems to work for just about anyone, because everyone breathes, and everyone’s breath is linked to their emotions and state of mind. It works so powerfully because it uses natural rhythms in the breath to directly shift the stress response in our nervous system…regardless of the crazy circumstances that may be happening around you and that is real resilience.” Breathing techniques can also be learned quickly and students can immediately feel an impact. Dr. Seppälä calls breathing the “fastest, most efficient tool for mental health.”
In addition, Annelies feels the strong positive community and social connection aspect of the program through leadership training and service learning adds a lot to the success of it. She explains, “Social connection is a basic need of human beings after food and water, and the feeling of being connected predicts our well-being in many ways. If you only teach people to meditate and breath and calm their mind, with eyes closed – that is just half of it…When we combine evidence-based practices that work – that relieve anxiety and depression and raise positive emotion and well-being – with social connection experiences and positive community, then the practices become alive and can be applied in a real life setting.”
And, there is no realer life setting than college during a pandemic. Perhaps that is why so many people have turned to the program in the past few months. In fact, Annelies says that the number of students they have taught has doubled since the pandemic started in March. To put that in perspective, they normally teach about 20,000 students per semester, but this spring/summer they have taught about 45,000 students and staff. Annelies feels this signals that there is even more of a need for these programs and for a sense of positive community in students across the country.
As students return to campus with increased stress and uncertainty, Dr. Seppälä argues these interventions could really help college campuses by bolstering student resilience and well-being. She thinks that by offering them as a course at universities, and giving students an option of what to take, but making sure they take something before they graduate, the counseling center could be left more free to be used by students who actually need the services. These classes might also help catch at risk students that otherwise would only be seen in crisis, or not at all, by the college counseling centers. Students would simply not be able to put off their mental health needs.
Requiring these courses, especially now, would signal to students that these skills are valued and important to their future. Dr. Seppälä says, “students always feel like they have other things that they need to do and there’s sort of been this mentality out there, especially [in] high achiever kind of environments, where people don’t value their well-being because they don’t believe their well-being has anything to do with the productivity.” Yet, she explains that they are wrong as research shows that mental health is directly related to productivity and creativity. As Annelies puts it, “Because your mind is the lens through which you view your life, the quality of your life depends on the state of your mind.”
Some universities, like Stanford, have already been doing this. Julia Tang, Lecturer at Stanford University in the Division of Health and Human Performance in the Department of Medicine, has been teaching the Sky Campus Happiness Program to college students there for the past 20 years and since 2009, it has been a for-credit class. She notes that they generally have a waiting list and enrollment is capped at 20 students per semester. They also get great ratings, even this semester over zoom. Julia says, “I am so grateful to be able to teach at a place like Stanford that values student wellness as well as academic success. By preparing these students for holistic well rounded success, we are giving them tools to thrive.”
Other colleges should consider following their lead. Dr. Seppälä adds, “Universities teach you how to think critically and how to write…they don’t teach you how to live. They don’t teach you how to be happy, and it’s like, isn’t that part of education, to turn people into adults who know how to handle their life?” Who could have guessed it might be as easy as teaching them to exhale.