Heidi Tolentino is a school counselor at Cleveland high school. Interview by Rebecca Jamieson.
Q: What are the challenges that the teens you see are up against?
A: I definitely think there’s been a shift over the past few years. I see a real increase in the amount of anxiety, in terms of numbers of kids, and also the extent of the anxiety. I think there are lots of factors that affect that, but that’s one of the biggest things that we see.
I think this anxiety leads to a multitude of things: drug use and abuse, suicidal ideation, cutting and just a lot of different ways that kids are trying to deal with the levels of stress and anxiety they have.
Q: So you’re seeing this increase?
A: Absolutely. I definitely think that the counseling team at Cleveland, as well as across the district, has seen an increase in the number of kids who experience anxiety. We also see a lot more intensity along with that anxiety, which often goes along with depression as well.
Q: Have you seen any impact from teens being in our Mindful Studies class?
A. Kids who have had a hard time opening up to me as a counselor, they’re just really guarded, have, within the class, opened up a lot. They've shared with other students, with the leaders in the class, and have been able to shift the way that they communicate about their anxiety. Also kids that have more severe, diagnosed anxiety, those kids have a chance to feel a little bit more in control of their anxiety. When they’re in the classroom and their anxiety starts to explode, when their anxiety keeps them from coming to school, they have tools to work through it.
I think once kids have the opportunity to see what the mindfulness class can do, and when they open up to it, it’s pretty life-changing for a lot of kids. It’s an experience that many of them have not had ever, in having ways to work through anxiety. For kids who have had anxiety their whole lives, for some of them this is the first time they’ve ever been able to feel like they have some control over it. It’s really amazing. It’s mind-boggling.
For this to be in a school is amazing. A lot of our kids have to go outside of school to be able to find ways to deal with their anxiety, whether it’s outside therapy or whatever else they’re doing. But to have it as a class that they have every other day, and to be able to work through the anxiety they have at school, while they’re at school, is pretty amazing.
Q. What tools do you see Mindful Studies giving your students?
A. The ability to communicate about what they’re feeling. Just to be able to say “I’m anxious,” just being able to say it aloud and asking for help is a really big deal. They’re not shutting it down. They’re aware of it, and then they can work through it.
The class teaches such a wide variety of skills. It’s really important for kids to learn and practice skills when they aren’t anxious. The classroom is so peaceful. Learning it when they’re not anxious allows them to practice it later when they are feeling anxious.
Q. Do you think mindfulness provides something that is currently lacking in our schools?
A. I think school in general, but especially high school, is really stressful. There’s a lot of pressure on kids – everything from getting good grades, thinking about college, being involved in activities, trying to make social dynamics work, struggling with bullying and everything else that happens at school. A lot of the anxiety I hear about is school-related. For kids to feel like there’s a place in their day where they can go into a space that’s comforting and calming and teaches them how to deal with the rest of their day at school is really something that I don’t think we as counselors can give them. It’s much bigger than what we can do in our office, because just talking one-on-one with an adult is not the same as being able to talk with peers about what’s happening, in the space where it’s happening.
Adults don’t understand kids in the same way that kids understand kids. For them to be talking about it with each other is something that we as adults – no matter how gifted we are – can’t do for them. I don’t think there’s another way that we provide that in public schools. I’ve been both a teacher and a counselor and I’ve never seen kids have that same opportunity to really begin to self-assess, look at themselves in a different way, share the intensity of their feelings with their peers, and then learn how to deal with that and feel like they have control over how they manage that. I’ve never seen kids get that kind of experience within a school setting.
Q. Should mindfulness in education be funded?
A. There really isn’t anything better that we could provide them than what is offered in this class – to communicate what’s happening for them, share the stress and worry that they have, and to learn that it is ok to feel that way, that it’s normal, that it’s common, and that they have the power to control and work through what’s happening with them, the choices they make, and that there are positive ways that they can deal with it and a positive place for them to be.
That’s the number one thing – we are educating the whole person. If we are not looking at their mental health, if we are not helping them work through their struggles and feel as though they have power over what happens to them, that there is hope, if we don’t focus on that mental health component, we are doing kids a disservice. That’s what mindfulness brings is hope for kids. We should have this mindfulness class for every high school student.