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A Mindful Cure to Bullying

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Every few months, my high school -- like so many others -- herds all of the students into the auditorium for an assembly about bullying. "Don't be a bully, be an ally," the speaker says, as if we didn't know. He tells us about laws prohibiting bullying and encourages us to help the victim.

Today, 49 out of 50 states have passed anti-bullying legislation and many schools have implemented anti-bullying programs that target the perpetrators and ask them to stop. While these programs represent the best efforts by school administrators to tackle a thorny problem, such programs have proven ineffective. In fact, according to a University of Texas study, students in schools with anti-bullying programs are actually more likely to be bullied than students in schools with no anti-bullying programs. It is time for us to turn the bullying conversation around. We have seen that targeting bullies does not work, so we need to find a new approach.

Up until now, our society has been trying to reform bullies while treating victims as martyrs. By focusing on bullies, we have actually given them more power. Instead, we need to shift our focus away from bullying behaviors and concentrate on building the inner-strength of all students. Mindfulness training is a significant way schools can help both victims and bullies develop skills for dealing with the social pressures of adolescence that underlie so much of bullying culture. MindUp is a mindfulness training program that has been adopted by about 80 schools across America to teach basic mindfulness so that students can regulate their emotions, build character and perform better academically. Widespread adoption of a similar mindfulness program could reduce the impact that bullying has on students and also decrease the amount of bullying overall.

A mindfulness program in schools would reduce the impact that bullying has on victims and the broader school community. While the act of bullying itself is bad, its consequences are even worse. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identifies depression and anxiety as some of the major results of bullying. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicines earlier this year found that mindfulness could rival antidepressants in reducing symptoms of depression. A major symptom of depression is regular streams of negative thoughts. Mindfulness requires the individual to notice the thoughts from a distance and to not get attached to any particular thought. If mindfulness practice is consistent, it can starve negative thoughts and create a more objective perspective, thereby helping to fight depression. Mindfulness also fights anxiety. Some 78 percent of all students studied at the J. Erik Jonsson Community School in Dallas, Texas said that five months of the MindUp program helped them to become more relaxed. A core concept of mindfulness is mindful breathing. Mindful breathing prevents the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for anxiety, from overworking, thus reducing anxiety. Mindfulness practice also improves self-confidence by changing the thinking process that allows thoughts associated with low self-esteem to flourish. Students with high self-esteem are less likely to be swayed by others' criticisms, taunting or bullying.

Mindfulness programs in schools would decrease the amount of bullying, as well. Because mindfulness reduces the impact of bullying, when potential perpetrators see that bullying does not have an effect on their intended victim, they often cease bullying behaviors.

Furthermore, because bullies are often driven by their own issues, such as fear of being different, low self-esteem or unfortunate circumstances at home, mindfulness programs can get to the core of what drives bullying behavior in the first place. Perpetrators claim to bully because of their own low self-esteem, past experience as victims of bullying, and lack of empathy.

We have already seen that mindfulness practices boost self-esteem. High self-esteem decreases the likelihood of bullying by making would-be bullies more comfortable in their own skin, reducing their need to force others' approval or respect. Mindfulness can also help short-circuit the vicious cycle of victims becoming bullies. Victims are conditioned to have low self-esteem, but through mindfulness, victims can let go of negative feelings and detach from painful past experiences. Mindfulness teaches individuals to listen to their core and cope with negative external influences.

Finally, mindfulness programs have also been shown to create greater empathy among students. Some 64 percent of all fourth and fifth graders in the J. Erik Jonsson Community School study demonstrated increased empathy after five months of the MindUp program. Empathy is crucial to combatting bullying. Empathetic people are less likely to become bullies and more likely to stand up for victims, once again, short-circuiting bullying before it becomes a problem.

Current bullying programs are not working and the consequences of bullying are too great for our society to do nothing. By continuing our current ineffective anti-bullying efforts, we allow bullying to flourish and tacitly accept it; at the same time we send a message to people who are bullied that they have no power. If we stand by and continue to promote the prevailing anti-bullying programs, we will continue live in a world plagued by suicide, anxiety and depression. It is critical that we take bold steps to change our approach to fighting bullying. And mindfulness just might hold the answer.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.