By Christina Sama-Bommarito, M.A.
The Program for the Development of Human Potential (PDHP) is a multi-faceted counseling and prevention program that services the students in our Catholic academies, elementary and high schools in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Each of the schools in our diocese has its own PDHP counselor who works intimately with students, faculty and staff.
As the school psychologist at The Mary Louis Academy (TMLA), Jamaica Estates, my primary goal is to make certain that each of the nearly 800 young women at TMLA starts her day with a high level of self-esteem and confidence.
Depression and Anxiety
I see a common theme among youth in our society: the difficulty to cope with feelings of anxiety and depression caused by a multitude of contributing factors.
Some of these factors include, but are not limited to, social and parental pressures, technology and social media, and maintaining a balance between school work and extracurricular activities.
No student should have to begin her day with any level of anxiety. Several months ago, I began to conduct research on how to teach our students how to cope with their issues and/or how to simply begin the day feeling more relaxed.
“I discovered scientific evidence conducted through randomized control trials (RCTs) and MRI (brain scan) studies which found that when practiced consistently, mindfulness meditation has the power to alter the structures and functions of the brain to reduce levels of stress, improve physical and mental health, increase cognitive performance, and overall show greater well-being.”
My research led me to have an open discussion in the beginning of the school year about implementing a school-wide meditation program with Principal Sister Kathleen McKinney, C.S.J., Assistant Principal Mrs. Ann Cordes and the faculty. The idea was received with enthusiasm and the program was implemented.
Once a week, school-wide guided meditation session begins over the public address system. Breathing techniques and muscle relaxation exercises are taught. Ten minutes is spent in silence reflecting on students’ overall well-being and faith.
The sessions have been running all year and the response from all participants has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Having 10 minutes in the morning is so calming,” said senior Kristen Brody, president of the Student Executive Board, “it helps me to refocus and concentrate on the day ahead. It reminds me to just breathe during times of difficulty and has made me realize the importance of self-care and how just taking time for myself a few minutes a day can make such a positive impact on my well-being.”
Junior Caroline Farrell started to meditate right before high school because she anticipated her stress level to be high considering she was in all honors classes.
“Meditation is a way of pressing the virtual pause button during the day, especially junior/senior year with colleges and SATs coming up,” said Farrell. “Meditation has also strengthened my faith and brought me closer to God. It is a beautiful form of prayer and self-reflection.”
Sophomore Ashley Jordan Matthews talks about her school and personal stressors and the weight she feels they put on her.
“I feel that I am always trying to meet the expectations of others and being careful with what I am doing because I don’t want to mess up.”
At times, she describes physically feeling her chest tightening and difficulty breathing. For her, meditation has been a form of healing. Also, the self-affirmations at the end of meditation have boosted her self-esteem and self-confidence. She describes how she now sees the good qualities she possesses and no longer sees just the imperfections. She feels she has become more independent and less reliant on others.
Overall, the students of The Mary Louis Academy have reported reduced levels of stress, a rise in academic performance, positive change in their sleeping patterns, and a greater sense of well-being and mental health.
Sister Kathleen McKinney reported that the hallways early in the morning are quieter. She has also received positive feedback from students, faculty, and staff members.
I quickly learned throughout my career how crucial it is to take time out of your day to take care of yourself and engage in positive self-talk and self-affirmation.
With that said, I offer readers the same exhortation I end all our meditation sessions, reminding each of you that you are powerful, you are smart, you are capable and above all, you are loved!
Sama-Bommarito is a PDHP Counselor at The Mary Louis Academy, Jamaica Estates.