Is mindfulness the answer to stress?

Mental health has become a rising concern in higher education, prompting calls for action by students, faculty and administrators across the nation. Though solutions to this issue are few and far between, some USC students are discovering the need for more proactive solutions — some of which already exist on campus.

“It’s great that they have counseling centers, but not every student feels comfortable seeking those out until it’s a dire time of need,” said Katherine Wilcoz, director of External Relations for Undergraduate Student Government. “What we need are more workshops for dealing with stress.”

The significant dearth in proactive approaches to mental and physical health was echoed by Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni, who said the steady rise in mental health challenges calls for more creative solutions.

“Often times, this work feels reactive because we only know students are in crisis when they are actually in crisis and they are at the counseling center,” Soni said. “But we also started to think about what a proactive engagement with mental health looks like as well that we can think of as a parallel to what we’re doing reactively, and we came to the idea of mindfulness as part of an overall proactive mental health strategy.”

The concept of mindfulness was unveiled on campus in the fall of 2014 in the form of Mindful USC, a university-wide initiative aimed at promoting mental and physical health for students, faculty and staff in the university community. It is premised on three main components: being awake, open and kind. Soni explained that mindfulness seeks to encourage participants to be aware of themselves and their environment in a way that leads to reduced stress and increased attentiveness, quality of learning and overall creativity and innovation.

“Really what we’re talking about with mindfulness is how to have a healthy relationship with your thoughts and your emotions,” Soni said.

The secular nature of the program and the proven health benefits have helped minimize the stigmatization surrounding the practicality of mindfulness and meditation in enhancing mental and physical health. Of the 800 participants who took part in last year’s Mindful USC program, nine out of 10 reported that the practice has been helpful to their lives.

“What we found was that we didn’t even need to prove the concept,” Soni said. “We just had to provide the resource.”

In its inaugural year, Mindful USC offered 22 free, not-for-credit courses in mindfulness taught by certified instructors. Though the initiative is offering the same number of courses this year, Soni said that more can be done to meet the already overwhelming demand — and it starts with the University’s upcoming USC Village project.

“If we’re going to try to hit every student and cultivate a culture of mindfulness, the best place to do that is through residential education because every first-year student will have the residential education experience moving forward,” Soni said.

Though the USC Village isn’t set for completion until Fall 2017, Mindful USC has already begun a residential education pilot program in the Parkside Arts & Humanities Residential College entitled, “Design Your Life.” The program focuses on three areas encompassing a broad liberal arts education: how to find meaning and purpose in one’s life and career; how to talk about difficult subjects such as race and privilege, as well as how to solve significant global challenges; and how one thinks about emotional intelligence, self-care, wellness and mindfulness.

Though Mindful USC is supported by a faculty-led steering committee in coordination with 12 partners including Student Affairs, Undergraduate Student Government and Graduate Student Government, the initiative also boasts a student arm, led by mindfulness practitioner Lillie Moffett.

Moffett, a senior majoring in psychology and cognitive science, first began practicing mindfulness after attending a meditation on campus her freshman year. When the University created the initiative in the fall of her junior year, the Office of Religious Life asked her to spearhead the effort of introducing mindfulness to students. As the student leader of Mindful USC, Moffett said that though the concept is gaining popularity, it’s still largely misunderstood.

“A lot of people think I meditate 45 minutes a day, but I don’t,” Moffett said. “I meditate multiple times a day for very little time. I do it a lot right before I’m about to sit down and do a huge chunk of homework because I’ve found that it really increases my focus.”

To mindfulness leader Zach Manta, a junior majoring in environmental studies, the practice of mindfulness is about learning how to respond to one’s own natural emotions.

“Mindfulness is not really about control — you can’t make yourself feel how you want to feel,” Manta said. “It’s more about riding the waves and being able to navigate your emotions, instead of just controlling them.”

Despite having practiced mindfulness for several years, both Moffett and Manta said it took a long time to grasp the practice. Moffett, who serves as a residential adviser in Parkside Arts & Humanities and leads a mindfulness meditation group for residents, said this learning curve often serves as the greatest deterrent among students.

“Results don’t come right away,” she said. “And [students] feel bad that they can’t focus.”

Manta echoed this, arguing that ignoring the challenges of meditation does not address the reasons why it is challenging.

“It is really difficult [to sit down with your own thoughts],” Manta said. “But at the end of the day, it’s worth doing because your thoughts are affecting you whether or not you’re paying attention to them.”

Time isn’t a problem unique to meditation. Wilcox said added accessibility to other proactive resources will also require a significant time investment.

“As a student myself, I’d rather spend my time doing homework than going to a wellness workshop,” Wilcox said.

In addition to time, Manta also highlighted the importance of finding appropriate spaces for meditation — something he says the University lacks.

“There’s no good, regularly available room open to students where you can just go and meditate and not be judged for doing this weird thing in the middle of an open space without being constantly surrounded by the sound of construction or other students’ conversations,” Manta said.

Though meditation isn’t the only way to achieve mindfulness, Moffett says it is the best practice towards achieving it.

“I see mindfulness as it helps me not react to situations, but to respond to situations,” Moffett said. “Through meditation, it trains me to be mindful in my everyday life.”