Meditation may be an ancient practice, but it has found a home on modern-day college campuses as schools use it to help tackle student anxiety.
The American College Health Association found in a 2015 study that a whopping 85.6% of respondents felt overwhelmed by their responsibilities. And according to a 2015 UCLA Cooperative Institutional Research Program study, only half of students surveyed rate their emotional health as “above average” and some 10% feel frequently depressed.
Last fall, the University of Minnesota — which runs the Center for Spirituality & Healing — put in designated meditation rooms in the school’s housing, and at the University of Vermont, a Wellness Environment (WE) dorm now offers twice-daily meditation sessions. Students at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) have been unwinding in the school’s Mindfulness Room, which features a waterfall, since 2014.
Mark Reck, interim coordinator of UVM’s Mind-Body Wellness Program, says meditation helps students handle the stresses that come with transitioning from home to school and all the corresponding responsibilities that come with adulthood, and can help improve attention, organization, planning and prioritization.
“College students have the opportunity to cultivate the capacity to manage these transitional responsibilities during a sensitive period in their brain development, with meditation being a rich practice with such cultivation,” he says.
Diana Winston, director of Mindfulness Education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, says, “Many college students are suffering from anxiety and depression … mindfulness can particularly help people to work with difficult thoughts and emotions.”
Meditation’s popularity has to do, in part, with its simplicity. In the college environment where schedules can be sporadic and money tends to be tight, easy ways to reduce stress come as a welcome relief.
“Once meditation is demystified and myths surrounding it are clarified, many college students find meditation to be more accessible than they realized and … become more attentive and attuned to automatic habits of mind,” Reck says
Mary Jo Kreitzer, the director of UM’s Center for Spirituality & Healing, points out that it’s “self-directed” and costs nothing.
University of Minnesota’s meditation rooms were introduced as a pilot program this past September. The rooms, which are located in residence halls and university apartments, feature soft lighting and comfortable seating.
“Our hope was to create spaces where students could engage in mindful activities that helped them deal with the everyday stresses,” says Kristie Feist, assistant director of Residential Life at UM.
CMU’s Mindfulness Room is open 24/7, and offers two guided meditation sessions a week. The school also has programming like “Paws to Relax” — studies show playing with animals can decrease stress — which attracts approximately 150 students per session, Angela Lusk, assistant director of Student Life at CMU, says.
“Dogs and bunnies from our local Animal Friends hang out with students,” Lusk says. “Both undergraduate and graduate students seem to really enjoy the venue and have even suggested creating more space on campus for this purpose. It takes a community-wide effort to reduce stress and increase well-being.”
The room also serves as a space for reflection. Students and alumni have shared “personal stories of failure, resilience and learning” through letters included in the room’s scrapbook. Whiteboard walls serve as a space for notes and inspirational messages.
Madeliene Smith, a graduate student at UM, says her undergraduate classes at the Center for Spirituality & Healing were her “sanity classes.”
“It sometimes felt that I was supposed to be overworked because being stressed demonstrated that I was ‘doing something,’” she says.
Taking mindfulness courses, Smith says, helped her remember that “mental health and well-being was really important, and … meditation encouraged a love of learning.”