Mindful of mental healthApr 11, 2018 09:52AM ● By Jet Burnham
Olin Levitt, Utah School Psychologist of the Year. (Jet Burnham\City Journals)
Like an island in the middle of the school, the ”Green Room” provides students with calming music, dimmed lighting, a comfortable couch and sometimes a much-needed nap.
“No other school has a green room—a room that is completely different than any other place in the building, where kids can completely get out of the stream—the noise, crowd and commotion, and enter a sanctuary,” said Olin Levitt.
That’s because no other school has Levitt, who was recently recognized as Utah’s School Psychologist of the Year.
Levitt helps students to develop better social and communication skills, how to work through problems and to be more resilient. He said kids are turning to technology to escape; they play video games or scroll through Instagram.
“They’re not learning how to deal with reality very well,” he said.
Levitt teaches the concept of mindfulness to help students.
“One of the key elements of mindfulness is to be working with what’s real and what’s happening right now and right here,” said Levitt.
Daily morning announcements at West Jordan Middle School include a “mindful moment” in which Levitt guides the whole school—students and faculty—through breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques.
Principal Dixie Garrison believes this is helpful for students who may be coming from a stressful home environment where many deal with trauma.
“We’re reprogramming the students to help them get into a mindset where they can learn,” said Garrison.
Garrison is 100 percent supportive of Levitt’s programs. She invited Celebrity Wellness Expert Rebecca Kordecki to train students and teachers in effective breathwork for mindfulness.
Levitt said the mindfulness movement is growing because of the benefits.
“Studies show if you practice mindfulness regularly, it actually can change the structure and function of the brain,” Levitt said. Harvard studies show a daily meditation practice will increase neural capacity in the prefrontal cortex, which mediates compassion, thinking before you act, attention and concentration, said Levitt. The areas of the brain that mediate stress actually shrink.
Levitt also believes in the benefits of yoga, which he has practiced for 50 years. He holds yoga sessions with students during PRIDE Time and with teachers after school.
Levitt also invites students to participate in weekly support groups that address family issues, stress, anger, anxiety and depression. He believes it helps kids to know they are not alone in their struggles and that it’s OK to talk about them. He said research shows 10 percent of middle school students experience suicidal thoughts.
“That means on any given day, I’ve got about 85 kids in the building that are having thoughts like that,” he said.
That’s a big responsibility, but Levitt said WJMS administration and teachers are extremely supportive of his programs. They are included in the training before the techniques are introduced to the students.
“Our teachers are not just looking at the kids academically,” said Levitt. “They’re looking at their mental health, physical health, social health—they’re looking to how they can help the kids in any way they can.” Levitt said teachers are accommodating of him pulling kids out of their classrooms for support groups.
“If a kid’s depressed, suicidal, cutting, hanging by a thread, these teachers are not going say no, not here at this school,” he said.
Levitt said WJMS is a unique school where teachers and administration love the students. This culture reflects his belief about seeing the potential in all students.
“My philosophy is that every kid here is already complete and whole, but they may not be able to access those parts of themselves,” said Levitt. He provides tools to students to access the love and the good choices that are already inside them.
“Even the kids you think are the ‘bad kids,’ when you spend any time with them, you realize they are amazing,” said Levitt. “I think people just have good stuff in them; I think we’re designed that way. The work that I do helps them realize that a little better and helps them access that a little better.”
Levitt has been working as a school psychologist for 27 years. In addition to the programs at WJMS, Levitt is also an instructor at Centered City Yoga studio and teaches classes at the Jordan Family Education Center.