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Health and Medicine

Professor leads self-compassion classes to help teens amidst pandemic

Through the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute’s Program on Mindfulness and Self-Compassion for Families, Karen Bluth is helping teens address their anxiety and stress.

Karen Bluth.

While self-isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone, it is particularly difficult for adolescents, who often lack the coping mechanisms for such situations. To help them address their anxiety and stress, Karen Bluth, a psychiatry professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is teaching four-week self-compassion classes: one for 11- to 14-year-olds and another for 15- to 19-year-olds. She’s doing this through the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute’s Program on Mindfulness and Self-Compassion for Families, which she developed last year.

“In our culture, in our society, almost 80% of people are harder on themselves than they are on their good friends,” Bluth said. “So I teach people how to be kinder to themselves.”

Research suggests that teens who are more self-compassionate have less anxiety, depression, and stress. They are also more resilient, have a higher level of life satisfaction, and experience greater happiness, more motivation, and less fear of failure. Learning self-compassion is especially beneficial for teenagers, as 13% between the ages of 12 and 17 will undergo a major depressive episode and nearly one in three will experience an anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“If we can intervene during adolescence, then we can change the whole trajectory of mental health over a person’s lifespan,” Bluth said.

The classes include guided meditations, games, music, and art activities that emphasize both self-compassion and mindfulness — the conscious practice of focusing on the present moment without judgment. Mindfulness encourages a more positive and productive response to stressful events, while self-compassion is about treating yourself with the same kindness and care you would a good friend.

One teen currently enrolled in the program in another part of the U.S. lives in a single-parent household, where the mother is a nurse and has been self-quarantining. In response, the teen has been spending a lot of time taking care of their younger sibling — and that’s on top of the other challenges most adolescents are going through like completing schoolwork from home and lacking social stimulation.

When asked how parents can help their teens adjust, Bluth recommends they engage in their own mindfulness and self-compassion practices.

“We know that our kids sense what we’re sensing,” Bluth said. “If a parent is anxious or fearful, then their teen or younger child is going to know that in a heartbeat.”

On top of the emergency classes for teens, Bluth is helping the Department of Psychiatry lead free, online mindfulness and self-compassion sessions for Carolina health care workers, faculty and staff. She is also working with the FPG Child Development Institute to develop self-compassion workshops for parents as part of the Program for Mindfulness and Self-Compassion for Families.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who are really struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bluth says. “I want them to know they don’t have to struggle so much. There are ways through it. COVID-19 is the obvious example, right now. Whatever they are struggling with doesn’t have to be this hard. I do this to help people understand that.”