School of Public Health

Mindfulness Meditation and Adolescent Well-Being

April 2018
Author: Malka Main

High school student, Cohen, describes the teen mindfulness retreat and how meditation helps him when he is going "90 miles per hour. Every single day. Without stopping."

Stop. Focus on your breath. Slow it down. In through your nose. Out through your mouth. When your mind wanders notice why. Maybe your tooth aches or you feel impatient with a close friend or someone just walked by wearing your grandmother’s perfume. Observe your feelings. This is pain, this is judgment, this is sadness. Then guide your attention back to your breath. The inhale and exhale. The rise and fall.

Adolescents who experience major depressive episodes have steadily increased over the past decade

A major depressive episode is a 2 week period (at least) when someone has a depressed mood or loss of interest in daily activities plus at least 4 additional depression symptoms such as issues with sleep, appetite, energy, focus, or feeling a lack of self-worth.
Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

This is mindfulness - a type of meditation where you take note of sensations and emotions in the present moment without judgment. Mindfulness training is often paired with the practice of self-compassion, an intentional effort to react to these observations with kind thought and actions. Enough practice can help you to apply mindfulness and compassion throughout your day.


It is well-documented that mindfulness helps to relieve depression and anxiety in adults.1-4 A small but growing body of research shows that it may also improve adolescent resilience to stress through improved cognitive performance and emotional regulation.5-8 This is encouraging news for anyone concerned about the increasing rates of depressive symptoms and suicide rates among adolescents in the United States.9, 10

Most of the evidence on how mindfulness can benefit the adolescent comes from studies of individual school-based programs where students spend anywhere from a few minutes to over an hour on daily meditation practice.

Some of the most recent research, though, suggests that adolescents who attend an intensive meditation retreat for just one week may achieve results comparable to those who spend several weeks on shorter daily practice.11 Teens who participated in Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme) retreats experienced improved emotional well-being and decreased depressive symptoms even three months later.12 While these were all healthy but stressed teenagers with a predetermined interest in meditation, the results could help guide further research that includes adolescents with clinical mental health diagnoses and substance use issues.

“I think a retreat can have a really powerful effect for youth to be immersed in the environment, “ explains Jessica Morey, meditation instructor and iBme co-founder. “They can have life changing insights that might be harder to come by in short daily practice periods.” But Morey says that daily practice is imperative to maintaining meditation skills.

Jessicia Morey leads teen meditation mindfulness retreats
Jessica Morey, meditation instructor and co-founder of Inward Bound Mindfulness Education, says that meditation helps teenagers cultivate kindness in their observations of the world and other people and adopt an attitude of care. 


iBme, a Boston-based non-profit, hosts meditation retreats around the country for 15-19 year olds. Thirty-two percent of attendees identify as LGBTQ+ and 28% as people of color. The non-profit works with high schools, universities, and community organizations including College Track, a program for low-income teens who plan to be the first in their families to attend college. Morey is in the fledgling stages of planning intensive mindfulness training for youth at a juvenile detention center in Boston.

Retreats typically last 5 nights and 6 days. Teens voluntarily relinquish their daily routine, including their smartphones, to focus on mindfulness and compassion. They spend 4 hours a day in silent meditation: walking, sitting, or practicing yoga. And for 2 hours every day they break into small groups to practice “relational mindfulness,” a socially-oriented meditation that focuses on interpersonal relationships.

In an exercise called “Hot Seat” one person volunteers to be the object of meditation for the entire group. “So everyone turns their kind, curious mindfulness to that person,” says Morey. The young person in the “Hot Seat” practices trust and vulnerability as they respond to questions from the group. The others have the chance to practice empathy and compassion for someone outside themselves. “One of the big hallmarks of adolescence is feeling like I’m all alone,” says Morey. “Having this positive engagement where their peers accept them and are kind to them and practice non-judgmental interaction is hugely impactful. And they get to see, in their own minds, how to work with judgment and work with awkwardness.”


When asked if she thought state public health strategies to improve adolescent well-being could use mindfulness training retreats Morey responds enthusiastically: “Yes! I definitely think there is a lot of capacity there,” she says. The flexibility of the intensive retreat training means it can be incorporated into an existing infrastructure - like a school trip or community mentor program - but can also work as a stand-alone intervention.

But Morey cautions against implementing a mindfulness program without an experienced instructor. “There is a trend to just get a curriculum and start teaching it, like as a behavior modification,” she explains, “but the first key step is finding adults who have a deep personal practice. “If you think mindfulness would be good for your students or the youth you work with - then you should meditate - really have a personal practice and let anything you bring to youth come from your own personal experience.”


  1. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research. 2011;191(1):36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006.
  2. Hölzel BK, Ott U, Hempel H, Hackl A, et al. Differential engagement of anterior cingulate and adjacent medial frontal cortex in adept meditators and non-meditators. Neurosci. 421 (1) (2007), pp. 16-21.
  3. Hofmann SG, Sawyer AT, Witt AA, et al. The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: a meta-analytic review. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol., 78 (2) (2010), pp. 169-183.
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  8. Leonard NR, Jha AP, Casarjian B, Goolsarran M, et al. Mindfulness Training Improves Attentional Task Performance in Incarcerated Youth: A Group Randomized Controlled Intervention Trial. Frontiers in Psychology, 2013; DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00792
  9. . Mojtabai R, Olfson M, Han B. National Trends in the Prevalence and Treatment of Depression in Adolescents and Young Adults. Pediatrics Nov 2016, e20161878; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2016-1878
  10. Twenge JM, Joiner TE, Rogers ML, and Martin GN. Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science Vol 6, Issue 1, pp. 3 - 17 First Published November 14, 2017
  11. Galla B. “Safe in My Own Mind:” Supporting Healthy Adolescent Development Through Meditation Retreats. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, Volume 53, November 2017, Pages 96-107
  12. Galla B. Within-person changes in mindfulness and self-compassion predict enhanced emotional well-being in healthy, but stressed adolescents. Journal of Adolescence. 2016, Vol 49 Pages 204-217