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ODU students join study on meditation and mental health

Old Dominion University’s campus in Norfolk. (Photo courtesy of ODU)
Old Dominion University’s campus in Norfolk. (Photo courtesy of ODU)

Sophia Delos Santos saw posters everywhere on Old Dominion University’s campus this semester advertising a mental health study.

“My wife will tell me, ‘if something keeps like showing up in your life, there's a reason,’” said Delos Santos, a student majoring in mechanical engineering. “And so I was like, okay, I'll sign up.”

The ongoing study, organized by ODU professors, uses techniques formulated by SKY Campus Happiness, a group that promotes student wellbeing through meditation and breathwork. It’s an offshoot of the International Association for Human Values, an international nonprofit, and brings meditation programs to college campuses around the world.

“We went from 60 campuses to 120 campuses during the pandemic,” said SKY Campus founder Annelies Richmond. School leaders were “looking for alternative ways to get rid of suicidal ideation, make students more resilient, make them stay in school and make them more happy.”

The program has four main approaches: Breathwork, social connection, emotional intelligence training and leadership.

“We look at different perspectives and emotional intelligence lenses to try on, so that you become more compassionate to others and more self compassionate,” Richmond said.

Student mental health is an increasingly pressing concern for colleges, especially in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns and extended isolation. According to the 2022-23 Healthy Minds Survey, 41% of college-age respondents reported symptoms of depression, 36% reported experiencing anxiety and 14% said they’d experienced thoughts of suicide.

ODU’s counseling services director Joy Himmel told ODU News that even four years on from the worst pandemic isolation, students are still feeling its effects.

“It separated them from social, face-to-face interactions with their peers,” Himmel said. “This age group is very social and they need those connections.”

Himmel also said ODU and colleges nationwide typically see a rise in demand for counseling services in the early spring, coinciding with midterms. This year is no different.

Delos Santos said many of her classmates turn their workloads into a competition of who’s more swamped.

“It's a lot of like, ‘oh, I haven't slept in X amount of hours, and I'm chasing these X amount of deadlines and I'm on this much caffeine,’” she said. “And I'm just like, ‘whoa, it's going to be okay, guys.’”

The study starts taking effect

Engineering professor Sharana Asundi helped organize and secure funding for the study. He was motivated by seeing students struggle with isolation, including one who took their own life.

“That was enough for me to think, okay, let me look for opportunities where we can bring a bunch of students and do this research study, which will help us understand the psychological well-being cycle,” Asundi said.

Asundi said SKY Campus Happiness uses a biopsychosocial approach – meaning it touches aspects of a person’s body, mind and connections with others.

“The breathwork affects the bio, the meditation can affect the psychological aspect and the connectedness can affect the social aspect,” he said.

The 40 student participants at ODU went on a three-day retreat last week — SKY Campus’ flagship approach to teaching meditation. Students worked on breathing, light yoga poses and connecting with each other about their struggles and motivations.

“I think it really gave us a safe environment,” said Rachel Mannetta-Torres, a senior studying psychology. “I wasn't expecting to feel so safe and so vulnerable and so at peace with everyone else in the room.”

After the retreat, study participants were told to practice meditation and breathing techniques on their own. Nursing student Katelyn Seay said she followed through and started seeing results.

“I've already noticed I'm much more relaxed during the day. I was going through a lot in the beginning of the semester, and I feel like my mind is more at ease. I'm able to cope with things better, I'm able to breathe through the emotions,” Seay said.

Even three weeks into learning breath and meditation, she’s getting better at calming her mind.

"When we were doing the practice, there would be thoughts going in, but then they'd leave and then I'd be focused on the breath again,” said Seay, who said her ADHD diagnosis makes it hard to slow down.

"Usually my brain is going like 100 times a minute. There's just thoughts in and out," she said.  

But at the retreat, "I didn't have that."

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please dial 988.

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