Presence: In Life and on the Page

As you all may know, May is National Mental Health Awareness month, which aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and to spread awareness about the importance of maintaining our mental health. What have you been doing to celebrate? Maybe you tried your hand at meditation to find balance in the day-to-day struggles, or tried out a physical exercise, like yoga, for the first time? The possibilities are endless.

While those ideas might have popped into your mind when you read the words “mental health”, they aren’t the only ways to celebrate this month and delve into the world of mental health! Reading, for example, presents many benefits for the mind, like increasing one’s empathy and reducing stress. In fact, through bibliotherapy, doctors have discovered the wonderful effects reading has on reducing Anxiety and Depression. That’s one powerful packet of paper!

What To Read

In the spirit of National Mental Health Awareness month, and reading itself, I encourage you to pick up a book and see if you can discover some of the mental health benefits of reading for yourself. This may lead you to the question of ‘what ever shall I read?’ — but don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. My book recommendation is titled Presence: Bringing your Boldest Self to your Biggest Challenges, by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard University. This book is pure encouragement and inspiration, and while it is full tips and tools that everyone can learn from, it is far from a textbook.

Topics Tackled in Presence

You may have heard of Cuddy before, as her TED talk has been viewed more than 40 million times, making it the second most viewed TED talk ever. Her talk on Power Poses, body language, and building confidence is a glimpse into what she brings to the table with her book. Presence takes the saying “fake it ‘til you make it” and turns it into “fake it ‘til you become it,” through a body-mind connection. Simple adjustments to the body, like through power poses, actually make us feel more confident. Yeah that’s right, striking the classic superhero pose, with your hands on your hips and chin raised will actually make you feel that much closer to becoming Superman or Wonder Woman in your everyday life. It physically changes your Cortisol and Testosterone levels, which is how your body tricks your brain into making you feel more confident. Not a bad trick to have in your deck when preparing for that next exam, interview, presentation, or for any aspect of your life at all, like a day when you’re just feeling low.

The book also covers the topic of imposter syndrome, which many people, including Cuddy, suffer from. That feeling of not really belonging, that your achievements are not deserved, that you’re a fraud — yeah, there’s a name for it, and Cuddy explains how staying present in your life can combat those feelings. Cuddy’s book challenges the idea that there is just one definition or one way to be present in life, and definitions from people who were inspired by her TED talk are represented throughout, so maybe you’ll find one that you resonate with. The responses represent presence as a range of ideas, like the next five minutes, and finding your true self, and living with an open heart, so as long as you find out what being present means to you, you can use it to your advantage. This book emphasizes that being present in life doesn’t necessarily have to be centered around practicing meditation everyday or aligning your chakras, but that it is a way of showing your best, most authentic self to the world, and finding personal power. The book highlights the benefits of desiring “the power to [do something]”, rather than wanting “power over [someone]”, which shows how presence is all about internal growth and understanding.

Also, if you’re not convinced on the power of Presence yet, the book is a compilation of stories and life changing moments from people who were inspired by Cuddy’s story that wrote to her to let her know that being present had changed their lives. So, if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe them. Presence is unique in that it combines informative annotations and biological explanations for why people feel the way they do when they use a power pose or practice staying present, but the examples are from people all over the world and range from landing the big job, to graduating college, to creating championship racing horses — yeah, it turns out power poses work on animals, too!

Try it Yourself

Wherever you are right now, stand up, place your hands on your hips, and and raise your chin with pride. Don’t worry about looking silly, just worry about how you feel. Do you feel happier, more confident, energized? If you’re not feeling it yet, try standing in front of a mirror — some power pose enthusiasts swear by it! One major take away from this book is that you can fake it ‘til you become it, and there’s no shame in that. We all have days when we feel anxious, nervous, or sad, but through presence we can practice showing our best selves to the world, even on days where we wake up feeling low. This ability is a tool we can all use to change our lives.

So, pick up a book in celebration of Mental Health Awareness month (especially if it’s this one!). If you’re celebrating in a different way, let us know how you chose to commemorate the month of May (by commenting below!). If you pick up a copy of Presence, let us know what you thought of it, or what your own definition of presence has become. Share the idea of power poses with all of those around you so that everyone can feel confident when they need it most, it’s an amazing way to impact the body-mind connection, and who doesn’t want to feel like a superhero for a few minutes? Through being present in our lives, we can all show our best selves to the world, or maybe even find ourselves to begin with. There are so many amazing opportunities waiting just around the corner, so “Starfish up!” and get out there!

Aubrey Freitas is an undergraduate student at UCLA double majoring in English Literature and Psychology with a minor in Italian. She is a blogger for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative in the Mind Well section, which focuses on the importance of mindfulness and mental health. Aubrey is the founder of the organization Warm Hearts to Warm Hands, which teaches the skill of knitting to people of the community in return for their donation of an article of clothing they create with the skill, to be given to local homeless shelters.


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Stop talking and say something: FacetheIssue.com encourages conversation to tackle mental illness

This May, as we celebrate National Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s time to stop talking and say something. While 1 in 5 Americans struggle with mental health, only 44% of adults and less than 20% of children and adolescents with diagnosable mental health problems receive the treatment they need. Mental health is vital for a high quality of life, so what can we do to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and get people that are suffering the help they need?

The website FacetheIssue.com offers a solution. Face the Issue seeks to “To break the stigma and resulting silence that surrounds a wide range of mental health issues by promoting healthy, productive conversations.” While national campaigns and local programs are important ways to educate the public about mental health, they can be impersonal and thus may not always be effective. For this reason, Jane Semel and Melanie Hall created FacetheIssue.com in 2003 as a resource where friends and family could find tips and tools for how to talk to their their loved ones with mental illness in order to help them to cope and find the help they need.

Face the Issue address three major forms of mental illness: mood disorders (e.g. depression), eating disorders (e.g. anorexia), and neurotic disorders (e.g. anxiety). The site briefly describes each category of mental illness, giving examples of disorders that fall under these categories and providing descriptions of potential symptoms and danger signs. Then, it gives tips about how to start and shape conversations about these disorders (e.g. using “I statements,” being specific, referring loved ones to professionals for further help) as well as specific things to avoid in conversations. For example, if your loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, it’s important to not comment on their bodies (e.g. “But you look great!”), because comments about their physical appearance could be triggering. In addition to this overview of how to have a conversation about mental health, the site also provides additional websites where friends and family can learn more about mental health as well as a search function that connects users with local mental health providers.

Face the Issue asserts that “Starting a conversation is the first step in supporting those with mental illness and helping to guide them toward recovery.” So, if you have a loved one that is currently struggling with mental health or that might be in danger, I encourage you to first visit FacetheIssue.com to learn how to talk to them about it. Just showing them that you love and care about them and that you are willing and able to support them on the road to recovery is invaluable; a simple “Hey, how are you?” could be the first step to getting someone the help they need to live a fulfilling life.

The MindWell pod and the Healthy Campus Initiative are committed to supporting the mental health of the UCLA community, so for additional mental health resources you can check out the MindWell pod’s resources page on our website.

Danielle de Bruin is a fourth-year undergraduate student at UCLA majoring in Sociology with a double minor in Italian and Global Health. She is the blog coordinator for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative and the director of UCLA’s Body Image Task Force, which is a committee within the Student Wellness Commission. With the Body Image Task Force, Danielle organizes events, workshops, and campaigns to promote healthy body image, self-confidence, and mental health on campus. She is also published in the journal PLOS Medicine and the Huffington Post.

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Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg talks Visual Healing

By: Artemisia Valeri, MindWell Pod Coordinator of the Healthy Campus Initiative

A UCLA staff member described Louie Schwartzberg’s imagery best saying, “Just looking at those already relaxes me.” Louie is a cinematographer and UCLA alumnus who captures breathtaking imagery of the natural world. Through MindWell’s Gratitude Challenge, hundreds of UCLA staff, faculty, and students experienced Louie’s Gratitude Revealed, a series of short films exploring gratitude coupled with research from the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. Louie sat down with MindWell to talk gratitude, changing the world, and the radical notion of visual healing.  

When asked what it is about his photography that creates such a visceral reaction, Louie described the recurring patterns he has seen across nature: images of the brain, an aerial view of the Amazon, and the underground roots of fungi display almost identical patterns.

Louie uses the camera as a lens to go both closer and farther than the human eye is capable to showcase these patterns and visually disrupt your perspective.  “People have an emotional connection to the imagery because when I’m filming I’m trying to identify with rhythms and patterns of nature that touch the deepest part of my soul– and I think that’s universal.”

He theorizes that the diverse patterns in his nature photography “mirror movements and energy patterns in every cell of your body. And that it’s kind of a homecoming, a reconnection with that universal energy that we all want to be a part of.”

Although Louie speaks with the awe of an artist, he is also serious about expanding our scientific understanding of this visual phenomenon. Louie laughs saying,

The research I have seen so far is mostly, they’ll show {study participants} some beautiful shot of nature and then they’ll show them a car accident. And they’ll go, oh guess what- there’s a different reaction. And I always call that the ‘duh principle’ you know, well duh! I mean…how obvious would that be?

At the new UC San Diego hospital, Louie’s imagery will be combined with data to delve deeper into examining its effects on health and wellbeing.

Every patient room has a tablet that has your medical records…In addition they have a question that pops up that says ‘where in the world would you like to go to be healed?’ and we’re giving the patient the power to choose…They can go to a forest, ocean, desert, flower, or underwater. And we’re going to collect data to see how it reduces stress, respiration rate, heart rate… use of painkillers, sleep, and… length of hospital stays.

By bringing his artwork into medical care, Louie is exploring a new tool to promote wellness.

There’s a big emphasis now in healthcare about patient experience, integrative health and a ‘spa-type consciousness’… There is audio therapy: spoken word…massage which is touch, aromatherapy which is smell. But think about the fact that 80% of the information you receive comes into your eyes. And there is no healing modality that I’m aware of for vision.

Here enters Louie’s radical new modem of care: visual healing.

But wait– you might be thinking– what about meditation? On mediation, Louie acknowledges the immense difficulty of closing your eyes within our current world:

I’m not opposed to it, however it’s hard for people to do that, especially when we come from a highly-stimulated world where we spend probably 90% of our day staring at a digital screen, right? And then all of a sudden we’re going to go close our eyes and make our minds go blank. Well that’s really hard, as opposed to, maybe we can leverage this digital device in a way that can take you through a portal of time and scale using nature as a pathway in order to open your heart.

Louie began leveraging photography to change perspective on UCLA’s campus, photographing the anti-Vietnam war movement. He describes his strongest memory as a student at UCLA as:

A feeling of freedom and independence. (A) because you’re away from home for the first time and that felt liberating, but then I was also surrounded by the liberation movements for people of color and saving the planet.

Can you imagine, all of a sudden a beautiful young lady walking up to the military and putting a flower in the barrel of a gun.  It was just so incredibly beautiful and such a game changer. And it wasn’t naive, it was partly naive, but not totally. Why can’t we imagine and dream a better world? And if not now, when?

The theme for the Healthy Campus Initiative‘s Annual Celebration this year was Dream Revolution. The renovation of the Living Amphitheater to include the new jane b semel HCI Community Garden was a dream come true for the Healthy Campus Initiative! I was curious how Louie’s dream and goals have changed over time.

I don’t think my goals have evolved at all. What I learned at UCLA is that I want to turn the world on. I think what has evolved is its been tempered with patience. I was there between 1968 and 1974 and that was right in the midst of when the anti-war protests were happening on campus and all the revolutions… we stopped the war in Vietnam. So you have this idea that you can make the world a better place, that you can change the world. I really believed that the world was going to change. And it did change, but again not as far as I wanted.

You can try visual healing yourself! Watch Louie’s newest season of Moving Art on Netflix now. A great option to destress to after a long day or for a breathtaking visual for your next event.

Interested in adopting a bed at the new jane b semel HCI Community Garden? Applications are now open, find out more!

Missed the UCLA Gratitude Challenge? Check out Gratitude Revealed to explore a series of short films on what gratitude is, why it’s important, and tools to foster more of it in your daily life.  

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Photo courtesy of Moving Art by Louie Schwartzberg.


Stop, Breathe, & Think Mindfulness Challenge

We’re just about halfway through the quarter, and midterms, papers, and the desire to maintain an active social life may be causing some stress to all of our daily lives right about now. Wouldn’t it be nice to take a break? Well, you’re in luck! The department of Campus and Student Resilience decided to help motivate students, faculty, and staff to take some time out of their days to relax with their Stop, Breathe, and Think Mindfulness Challenge. The challenge lasts five days, beginning May 1st and ending the 5th, and encourages participants to meditate once a day, for all five days. Worried that you don’t know how to meditate? Don’t worry — by signing up for the challenge, you will receive a text every day for the first week of May with a link to a short (and fun!) guided meditation practice that will support your wellbeing and resilience. What’s great about guided meditation is that there is assistance when trying to reach a calm and mindful state, some are even self-guided so that you can go at your own pace, if that sounds like more your style.

So you get to relax your mind every day, and reap the other benefits of meditation, like improving your immune system, lowering your blood pressure, increasing your ability to concentrate, and reducing stress — sounds divine, right? How about these other benefits of meditation, like increasing work efficiency, developing more creative problem solving skills, and providing better sleep, all of which are perfect for those of us wanting to do the best we can in the classroom during this midterm season.

Right now you’re probably wondering “wait, they want me to participate in a challenge that’s actually really good for me? Sounds too good to be true. What’s the catch?” The answer is that there is no catch; the department of Campus and Student Resilience just wants to share the experience of meditation with as many people as possible. In fact, they’re offering prizes to increase the desire for participation! Every participant who completes all five days of the meditation challenge will be entered into a raffle to win some really cool swag, including a $100 gift certificate to the Stop, Breathe, & Think online store, KIND bar snacks and merch, along with some other great prizes. So, rest, benefits for the mind and body, and free stuff? Yeah, you’re hearing that right. If you’re already itching to hit that sign up button before you’ve reached the end of the article, just click here.

The challenge taking place in May has a greater significance than just giving everyone a refreshing boost to make it to the end of the quarter. May is national meditation month, as well as national mental health awareness month (MHAM), so what better way to celebrate than getting our campus community to practice meditation together to kick off week one? MHAM was started in 1949 by Mental Health America to raise awareness and educate the public about mental illnesses, and help reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health issues. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five Americans will be affected by a mental health illness in their lifetime, and many more of us are impacted through our friends and family that are affected. This month is to commemorate those who struggle with mental illness, to show solidarity between those who struggle and those who are comfortable with their mental state, and educate the world about the importance of mental health — it is for everyone, because we all have a mental health of our own.

Try celebrating the month by visiting UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) and check out some of their events like free drop-in meditations or workshops, or download some of their free guided meditations to try along with the challenge, or to help you remain practicing after it’s ended. Check in with yourself and those you care about throughout the month, because we are all affected by life’s challenges differently, and, although we may not all have a mental illness, we all have mental health. Take time during May to practice building resilience in your own life and help friends and family build resilience of their own through meditation and communication.

Sign up for the challenge here anytime before May 1st, and join the other students, faculty, and staff that have decided to give meditation a try. Maybe the challenge will even inspire you to incorporate meditation into your everyday life after it has ended, or maybe it will be that one thing you signed up for on a whim that gave you the boost you needed to power through a stressful time. Let us know how the challenge goes for you by commenting here or online, and share your experiences of the benefits of meditation with those around you, so that they may want to try to benefit from it, as well. Good luck with resilience building, and happy mindfulness challenging!

Aubrey Freitas is an undergraduate student at UCLA double majoring in English Literature and Psychology with a minor in Italian. She is a blogger for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative in the Mind Well section, which focuses on the importance of mindfulness and mental health. Aubrey is the founder of the organization Warm Hearts to Warm Hands, which teaches the skill of knitting to people of the community in return for their donation of an article of clothing they create with the skill, to be given to local homeless shelters.


For Metta World Peace, Living Well Matters

By: Vanessa Perez, MPH student at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and Move Well Pod GSR for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative

Metta World Peace is a big fan of the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative (HCI), envisioned and supported by Jane and Terry Semel, and I had the opportunity to find out why.

Metta, formerly known as Ron Artest, is a professional basketball player in the NBA, currently playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. Metta started off by telling me about his journey, and how a certain charity sparked his interest in both basketball and service.

“For me, the charitable side of Ron Artest started when I was 13 years old,” said Metta. “I met a guy named Hank Carter, and he had a fundraiser called the Wheelchair Charities. He raised money for paraplegics; he started off by doing concerts and basketball games to raise money. I actually played in his pro-game in Madison Square Garden in 1990. He just showed me the importance of giving back.”

For Metta, giving back has meant becoming an advocate for mental health awareness. “The reason that I got into my mission was because I was affected mentally by so many different things…so when I started to discover that mental health aspect, I wanted to figure out ways to become balanced and happy.”

He started Xcel University in 2007, a mental health initiative in which he has raised around $800,000 for a variety of mental health institutions. The campaign is in the process of becoming a foundation, to be called The Panda’s Friend Foundation. I asked where the new name comes from, and he said, “The panda is very zenful; they are great animals. They represent so many cool things.”

Currently, Metta oversees thepandasfriend.com, an online store where he sells merchandise related to his brand. He plans on using the proceeds to fund The Panda’s Friend Foundation. He said, “I want to open up facilities; I want to have curriculums and staff; I want to help families.”

I asked Metta what specifically interested him about HCI, and discovered that he was initially intrigued by our focus on sustainable and healthy food. He has visited both of our gardens (the medicinal herb garden at the Ronald Reagan Medical Center, and the new living amphitheater at Sunset Recreation Center).

“It just shows that the university is still connected to the earth. It actually frees you a little bit when you come here and you see the things that the professors are getting into, the things that the students are interested in; so I was very excited to learn more because I’m into food from the planet, just on a personal level,” said Metta.

Metta will be joining us at our 2017 HCI Annual Celebration, the Dream Revolution, on May 4th. I asked him, “Why are you excited to be a part of the Dream Revolution?”

Metta responded, “Seeing people promote health affects you and makes you feel good subconsciously. I’m excited because [HCI] is doing research on how to make the world a better place.”

I asked Metta, “What were your dreams and ambitions growing up as a kid, and how do you feel that living well has helped you to achieve your dreams?”

He smiled as he admitted his childhood dream of wanting to be Michael Jackson or a pastor, and how he used to mimic both personalities. He also recounted wanting to be a math teacher, as he majored in math before joining the NBA. Above all, he made clear how much he wanted to be a good family member, and was honest about the struggles he went through to do this.

“Along the way, you forget what you want out of life, and then you also pick up habits; bad habits that can affect you. I picked up tons of bad habits,” admitted Metta. He went into some of the issues he faced related to alcohol and family problems, and proudly discussed the ways in which he got the help he needed through counseling and classes.

“Some people say you change, but I wouldn’t say I changed, because that means at my worst that’s who I was. So I always tell people I never changed, I’m just who I always was. I don’t think anyone should change, I think they should just be who they are. And when you look at it like that, I feel comfortable being myself,” said Metta.

I asked Metta, “How have your dreams and goals evolved over time?”

He referred back to some of the unhealthy lifestyle habits he picked up earlier in his career, and how the effects made him more conscious of his health and nutrition. Now, he is considering going back to school to study nutrition: “I love nutrition; I don’t know everything about it, but I know a lot; I could probably be a nutritionist if I really wanted to.”

Our HCI motto is “living well.” I asked what “living well” means to Metta, and he said, “Living well means respecting yourself and respecting other people. And the respect you have for your planet. Some people, I think, forget how important the planet is.”

With regards to exercising, Metta said this: “I think everybody should have a physical activity that you do—volleyball, softball, tennis, walking, hiking—you should have some type of activity that you’re doing. Everybody should be moving. Just do something that makes you happy; maybe it’s walking to the store instead of driving.”

I was curious to hear Metta’s thoughts on his physical activity of choice, and here’s what he had to say about basketball: “Basketball is a tough workout. If it wasn’t for the ball, I don’t know if I would want to push myself that hard. Because there’s times where you are fatigued, you need water, your body hurts, you twist an ankle, you get elbowed, maybe you get cut, you stitch it up and you just go back out there, depending on what type of person you are. It’s motivating, it’s inspiring…I think it’s a challenge.”

Finally, I asked Metta, “How do you use your work to inspire other people to move?”

He said, “I think people see me out in public sometimes; I’m always working out. I’m 37, so there’s not a lot of 37 year olds playing basketball, so I think people get inspired and say if he could still run, I could still run; if he could still move, I could still move; so I think that’s how I probably inspire people to move.”

Be sure to join the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative and Metta World Peace at our annual celebration, the Dream Revolution, on Thursday, May 4th from 4-7pm at UCLA’s Sunset Recreation Center.


Get Involved: Out of the Darkness Campus Walk

It’s the beginning of Spring quarter — with only eight weeks until we reach the much-awaited summer — so what can we do to make this last quarter a memorable one? Get involved with a meaningful cause! A great chance to get involved is at the upcoming Out of the Darkness Campus Walk at UCLA’s Drake stadium on Sunday, April 23rd from 1pm-3pm. The walk is an event hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), and promotes suicide prevention and awareness, as well as the importance of mental health in general. Sounds like a noteworthy cause already, doesn’t it? But how much do you know about the statistics of suicide in the world today?

Before we get down to the numbers, let’s learn a little bit about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and why it hosts the Out of the Darkness walks. The AFS provides opportunities for survivors of suicide loss to be active in educational, outreach, awareness, advocacy, and fundraising programs. All of this has been done to create a culture that’s smart about mental health, in order to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide. They are the largest private funder of suicide prevention research, and even started out as a small research organization until public donations transformed it into what it is today.

Some of their research thus far has been on the relationship between decision-making in a negative environment and the effects of teens who text a crisis line when seeking help. Their research has greatly contributed to what the world understands about suicide today, and more of their findings can be found here. You can also sign up to become an AFSP field advocate, along with thousands of other volunteers, and receive the latest policy news and events surrounding mental health, as well as learn how to take action against policy issues you care about. AFSP has chapters and events occurring in all fifty states, so check out their website for more information. On top of all of the above, they offer educational programs for schools, communities, and workplaces, such as More Than Sad and Signs Matter. It’s clear to see all of the effort that AFSP puts into the cause of suicide prevention and awareness, and it hosts the Out of the Darkness walks to fundraise for these efforts, as well as spread hope and awareness throughout the communities in which they are held. Now that we know what the cause is about, let’s return to the statistics which created it all.

The Facts

In the US alone:

  • There is one death by suicide in the US every 13.3 minutes
  • About 39,500 Americans lose their lives to suicide every year

In the world as a whole:

  • There is one death by suicide in the world every 40 seconds
  • Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide

In terms of gender:

  • Suicide among males is 4X’s higher than among females
  • 79% of all US suicides are attributed to male deaths
  • Females attempt suicide 3X’s as often as males
  • Females experience Depression at about 2X’s the rate of men

In terms of age:

  • Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for people the ages of 15-24
  • The prevalence of suicidal thoughts, planning, and attempts are highest among adults age 18-29

In terms of gender identity and sexual orientation:

  • LGBTQ+ youth who come from families that reject or do not accept them are 8X’s more likely to attempt suicide than those from families who accept them
  • LGBTQ+ youth are 3X’s more likely than straight youth to attempt suicide in their lifetime
  • Each time a LGBTQ youth is a victim of verbal of physical harassment/abuse they are 2.5X’s more likely to hurt themselves

Pretty startling, isn’t it? Suicide is a prominent concern in our society, affecting all ages, genders, and sexual orientations. Even if you haven’t been directly affected by suicide, the chances are that you have a family member, friend, or coworker who has been. We walk for them, and for all those who have been affected, in hopes of reducing the rate of suicide 20% by 2025.

If you feel drawn to the cause, you can donate to the foundation and the walk event by clicking here. If you would like to donate your time at the event, register to be a walker/start your own team here, or volunteer to help at the event if that appeals more to your interests. Those are three ways that you can get involved with the walk to show your support for suicide prevention awareness — which one will you try? If you do decide to walk, come and find me with the Resilience Peer Network (RPN) walking team, or visit the table hosted by UCLA’s Depression Grand Challenge. We may not all have a mental illness, but we all have mental health, and it’s imperative that its importance be brought to the forefront of everyone’s attention. Lace up your shoes, and get ready to make this Spring quarter one in which you show your support for a great cause.

Aubrey Freitas is an undergraduate student at UCLA double majoring in English Literature and Psychology with a minor in Italian. She is a blogger for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative in the Mind Well section, which focuses on the importance of mindfulness and mental health. Aubrey is the founder of the organization Warm Hearts to Warm Hands, which teaches the skill of knitting to people of the community in return for their donation of an article of clothing they create with the skill, to be given to local homeless shelters.

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Creativity & the Arts in Healing

10-year-old Kara makes a collage featuring a large bird standing on a branch of a barren tree with an arrow pointing its beak towards a strawberry, while a smaller bird stands on an opposite branch looking up towards a raspberry.

Using a structured fill-in-the-blank bio poem, she writes from the voice of the bird:  

I am a little birdie.

I wonder if my mom’s going to survive, because she has a cut wing.

I hear my mom crying.

I see my dinner.

I want my mom to be healed.

I am a little birdie.

Creative expression reveals what is inside us.  It invites reflection that can lead to self-discovery, connection, and empowerment.  The universality and non-verbal essence of the arts transcends traditional barriers of culture and ability.  Moreover, shared creative experiences provide an organic opportunity for self-revelation, meaningful dialogue, and the development of empathy.

An elementary school counselor shared her insights in working with a group of 5th graders, after receiving a UCLArts & Healing training in Beat the Odds, which integrates activities from group drumming and group counseling to build social-emotional skills:

 “I used the one drum that I had to talk about problems and had kids give information verbally and with rhythm on the drum.  The kids loved it.  I noticed improvements in behavior with a greater sense of cooperation between them.  Those who were shy or acting out would bring out each other’s qualities . . . to level each other out.  Some of these children, if put together previously, would have been fighting.  Then they became a group, and you don’t beat up a member of your group.”

What tools can address emotional turmoil and social divisions as efficiently, cost effectively, and sustainably as the arts? 

Traumatic stress responses inhibit speech center activity in the brain, which interferes with our ability to articulate what we are thinking and feeling.1 They also inhibit rational brain functions of sequential thinking, decision–making, and social behavior.  On the other hand, when under stress, we are evolutionarily wired for activity in visual, movement, and sound centers of the brain for self-protection.  Therefore, non-verbal pathways for self-expression and engagement can be useful in addressing trauma.  

Unlike other healing modalities, the arts are also uniquely capable of enhancing positive emotions, particularly when the focus is on process over product.2  Furthermore, active participation in the arts engages large areas of the brain, which quite literally crowds out stress, grief, and pain.3

How can you bring these practices to your community, school, workplace, or home?

At UCLArts and Healing, we maximize the innate benefits of the arts by integrating them with mental health practices, such as nonjudgmental language that invites dialogue.  For sustainability, we offer professional development with scripted materials that anyone can use with a variety of populations, in a variety of settings.  We also teach others how to develop their own supportive curricula through our Certificate Program in Social Emotional Arts.  Our vision is to offer effective programs across the lifespan that can be implemented in school, health care, and recreational settings, where nearly everyone visits.

We invite everyone to attend our inaugural, experiential conference on Creativity & the Arts in Healing from Thursday, March 30th through Sunday, April 2nd, 2017 at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport.  Learn arts-based tools for facilitating communication, building connection, promoting positive emotions, fostering engagement, reducing stress, and managing the impact of trauma.  Choose from 125+ workshops delivered by leading national experts in art, dance, drama, drumming, music, and writing integrated with mental health practices.  Select any one or combination of days.  Over 30 continuing education credits are available.  Sponsored in partnership with the Expressive Therapies Summit. To register: expressivetherapiessummit.la

Written by Ping Ho, MA, MPH, Founder and Director, UCLArts & Healing


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1 van der Kolk BA.  The Body Keeps the Score. New York: Penguin Books; 2014.  

2  Frederickson B.  How positive emotions heal. Keynote lecture presented at: International Research Congress on Integrative Medicine and Health; May 16, 2012; Portland, OR. http://webcast.ircimh.org/m/2012?link=nav&linkc=date. Accessed March 16, 2017.

3 Tramo MJ.  Biology and music: music of the hemispheres. Science. 2001;291(5501); 54-56.


Exploring Mindfulness

I was first exposed to mindfulness when I started at UCLA. When I first arrived at Rieber Vista as part of my New Student Orientation, I was jumpy, perhaps even noticeably so. Born with something of a nervous disposition, I had a hard time keeping still. With that being said, however, I had never been the kid who was bouncing off the walls; rather, I was the kid whose thoughts never stopped racing.

The novelty that surround orientation and ultimately my future at UCLA set my mind abuzz with both fear and excitement. I arrived to my room, duffle bag in hand, and greeted my roommate with such forced enthusiasm that she laughed. She noted my nerves, which of course made me more nervous, and mentioned that she was a bit jittery herself. She suggested that we try this meditative practice together, one she had successfully used before in moments such as these.

My first thought at her suggestion was one of sheer disbelief. I certainly believed that college would be different, but I didn’t think it would be something out of Eat. Pray. Love. However, I was a nervous pre-1st year, so of course I didn’t announce my skepticism. With almost the same amount of hyper-enthusiasm that started this tirade, I readily agreed.

I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor as she instructed me to close my eyes, breath, and clear my thoughts. Unfortunately, my attempts to clear my thoughts only caused me to think more. I started to feel even more stressed than when I began. After what seemed to be an uncomfortably long amount of time, she asked how I felt. Once again, I lied through my teeth and insisted that it was essentially the best thing that ever happened to me.

After that day, I put the notion of mindfulness and meditative practice in a box and locked it someone far, far away. I deemed it something that simply wasn’t for me. So you can imagine how I felt when it became something that was strongly suggested — essentially enforced — as a component of my job as a GRIT Peer Coach and my role as a Certified Resilience Peer. I was skeptical to say the least, perhaps even frustrated at times. No matter how times I tried, I always felt like I was doing something wrong. My mind would never fully clear, the awareness of which would then snowball into more thoughts. For the longest time I considered myself a failure at mindfulness.

My frustration with mindfulness stemmed from the fact that I didn’t really know how to define it. I initially thought it to be something elusive, something I had yet to attain. In some ways, I was right. Mindfulness is like a muscle. The more one exercises it, the more proficient it becomes. But most importantly, mindnessful is a state of being and a way of living, not something a person does in isolation.

While it took me time and some continue prompting from others, I realized that there was more to mindfulness than sitting quietly in a room. I found that I could incorporate mindfulness into my life by looking up from my phone a little bit more often as I walked to class or listen a little bit more intently to a friend’s story. Slowly but surely, mindfulness stopped being this scary, nebulous entity. It became a lifestyle choice, one that not only helps keeps my anxiety at bay, but allows me to appreciate my life more.

Mindfulness is essentially the state of being present and aware both of one’s surroundings and one’s own body. Effective mindful practice involves acknowledging that the mind can stray and accepting that discomfort is valid if that is what one is feeling. In doing so, we become more attuned to parts of ourselves that we may have otherwise locked away.

Studies have shown the numerous benefits of mindful practice. As students, it is sometimes all too easy to put our mental health on the backburner. Moreover, in the hustle and bustle of being a student, it can seem like there is not enough time in a day to engage in mindfulness, regardless of the benefits. Luckily, mindful practice doesn’t have to be a grand, structured event in order to be effective. In moments of stress, I recommend taking 3 deep breathes. When walking on campus, look up and take in everything. When lying in bed, conduct an assessment of the muscles in your body from head to toe.

Challenge yourself to be a little more present everyday. The benefits will be endless.

Mandy Mekhail is a 4th year undergraduate Psychology major and Disability Studies minor at UCLA. She currently serves as the Assistant Commissioner of the Student Wellness Commission, a student organization dedicated to promoting holistic health and wellness in the UCLA community.



How to Practice Self-Compassion

In the journey towards finding balance in your life, the practice of self-compassion may be a game changer. Self-compassion is the act of recognizing your own humanity, accepting yourself at the present moment, and appreciating yourself not for your productivity, but for your inherent worth. However, self-compassion is one of the hardest things to practice when we have high expectations set for ourselves, perfectionist ideals, and constant messages that we should be doing more. Practicing self-compassion is an active process that involves the mind and body. Here are some things you can work on to incorporate self-compassion into your everyday life.

Start to recognize your self-talk

When we are stressed, the thoughts in our head quicken in pace and amplify. Some of those thoughts are your own mind talking to you about your self-worth or your current situation. You may call yourself names, blame yourself for doing something “wrong” or not being good enough, or tell yourself that your actions have much larger implications than they really do. It can be scary to identify what these internal voices are saying, but this is a significant first step to practicing self-compassion. Try writing down your self-talk in a journal. You may even notice certain patterns in your self-talk.

Use affirmations

So, you have recognized your negative self-talk, but what do you do next? It can be overwhelming to simply notice your self-talk without working to reframe it. This is where affirmations come in. If you are just starting to use affirmation work, look over your self-talk and think about what you would tell your best friend to comfort them. Channel these words of love towards yourself, taking the time to write or say your affirmations aloud. Repeat them, giving them time to sink in. If you find it hard to accept affirmations, explore what it might be like to believe one, with curiosity. Patience is key when it comes to using affirmations.


Image via Flickr

Meditate to presence yourself

Part of the practice of self-compassion is grounding yourself, which means bringing your awareness into the present moment. One way to come into the present moment is to meditate. Meditation can be practiced in many ways, but one way is to sit comfortably with your eyes closed and focus on your breathing. If you would like more structure to your meditations, the Mindful Awareness Research Center website has guided meditations that walk you through the process. This amazing resource has a Loving Kindness meditation, if you would like to practice compassionate meditation.

Do things that make you happy

The best way to practice self-compassion is to do the things you love. When we are stressed, it is common to restrict ourselves from doing pleasurable activities until we finish our work and complete all our obligations. But what if we allowed ourselves to do the things we love, guilt-free? Practicing self-care, even for short periods of time, can not only improve productivity, but can also increase mental wellbeing. It is easier to practice self-compassion (and be productive) when we are getting what we need. So next time you are feeling stressed, do something kind for yourself.

Compassion with accountability

It is easy to forget to practice self-compassion. Often times, self-talk emerges without us even noticing. Taking a brief moment each day to give yourself affirmations, meditate, or even recognize your self-talk will make self-compassion part of your routine. The GRIT Peer Coaching Program offers individualized session to work on practicing self-compassion and building skills to improve your overall wellbeing. You can request a coach for spring quarter to increase accountability and work on maintaining balance in your life here at UCLA. Enjoy your journey towards self-compassion!

Maya Ram is a third year World Arts and Cultures major and Public Health minor, and she represents the Bruin Research Center in the HCI Living Well Coalition.

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Yoga and Yogis: You’ve Gotta Check it Out

In a place like Los Angeles, we hear about yoga almost everywhere we go: celebrities use it to stay fit, just about every other person walking next to you has a yoga mat slung over their shoulder, and Lululemon products are popping up all over the place — but, what exactly is yoga? A quick scan through Google can give you the textbook definition, somewhere along the lines of “Yoga: a Hindu philosophy that teaches a person to experience inner peace by controlling the body and mind.” Whenever you pass someone holding a bright, neatly rolled, cylinder-like object on their back or arm, feel free to think of them as a “Yogi: a person who practices yoga.” That’s just a bit of lingo to keep you sounding hip.

As a passionate, backbending yogi myself, I have a deep interest in the practice and what it can do for mental health and for the body. If you’re already interested, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved with yoga on or close to campus, like UCLA Recreation Center, CorePower (which offers a free class every Saturday), and Flexible Fridays (which holds free yoga classes on the hill for UCLA students). Yoga for Flexible Futures (YFF), a nonprofit organization here on campus that teaches yoga and nutrition to elementary school children at the UCLA Community School, has recently begun holding yoga classes/workshops, open to everyone, every Thursday from 7-8pm in Squash Court A at the John Wooden Center. Some of the workshops so far, taught by YFF club members, many of whom are certified yoga instructors, have been on acro-yoga, inversions, and vinyasas. If any of these catch your interest, please email yogaforflexiblefutures@gmail.com with any questions or requests. I sat down with two of their yogi members to find out more about their experiences with yoga, the effects it has had on their lives, and why the practice has become so popular.

Meet the Yogis

Ailey Word Simpson is a charismatic fourth year student, with a love of architecture and mathematics. She’s an adult-certified yoga instructor who has had a passion for handstands since she began her practice six years ago. She also has a secret talent of being able to touch her elbow to her toes (I have seen it happen with my own eyes!) and baking cakes on the weekends. Katie Salow is also a fourth year student and long time member of the club. Her interests are Psychobiology and Global Health on the school front, and triangle pose and headstands on the mat. She enjoys eating cookie dough ice cream, pottery, and looking at corgis dressed in costumes (though, not all at the same time).

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Photo via Aubry Freitas

Questions and Thoughts

Q: Tell me a little bit about YFF from your point of view. What does it mean to you?

Katie: Our organization makes health and mindfulness fun and accessible to kids that wouldn’t normally be exposed to the practice. Yoga serves as more than exercise, and helps the kids become more confident and comfortable with themselves while learning new and cool “tricks,” as they call them. (You guys can all see their smiling faces in the adorable pictures below)

Q: Why do you think it’s important for kids to take part in the practice of yoga and have knowledge of nutrition?

Katie: Yoga enhances Physical strength and flexibility, and encourages more novel uses of a variety of muscle groups. Not only is it physically beneficial, but it helps build focus and concentration, traits that are incredibly applicable to all aspects of development.

Ailey: Getting kids excited about living healthier and more mindfully at a young age will, hopefully, allow them to develop ways to carry that positive lifestyle along with them as they grow. We try to make the lessons applicable to their everyday lives, so that they can carry what they learned off the mat.

Q: Why did you start practicing yoga?

Ailey: I grew up dancing ballet, and I first started practicing yoga as a supplement to dance training. I started practicing consistently years later, and have developed an appreciation for all of the benefits that yoga can have, aside from strength and flexibility.

Q: Have you experienced any changes in your life because of the practice, like less stress, a calmer mind, or just an overall more positive way of living?

Katie: Absolutely. Yoga is a great workout, but the practice teaches you to focus and let go of negative thoughts that aren’t adding to your quality of life. It is a moving meditation that helps ground your thoughts and creates balance in all aspects of life.

Ailey: Having a consistent yoga practice has definitely changed how I approach my day-to-day life. At this point in my yoga journey, I am more comfortable with my body and have learned to practice better self care physically and mentally.

Q: What would you tell someone who was thinking about getting into yoga, but was worried that they weren’t flexible enough to participate in the practice?

Katie: Lesson plans for classes are geared towards valuing the variety of everyone’s bodies: whether you’re more flexible, strong, energetic, or still. (There’s many different aspects of the practice, it’s not all about being able to twist into a pretzel shape.)

Ailey: No one is good or bad at yoga, and there is no one way that each pose should look! Embrace your current level of flexibility and strive to find the variation of each pose that feels right in your body, rather than the extreme instagram version. (We all know what she’s talking about!) Yoga is all about how you feel, not how you look.

Yoga is a beautiful practice that will allow you to work on silencing your mind, exploring the abilities of your body, and, ultimately, find balance (literally and figuratively here, people.) It’s for everyone, and every age, and it’s because of the diversity it holds within itself that so many people are drawn to it. Try out some of the local yoga options mentioned above, or try finding others that may appeal more to what you are looking for out of the practice, or maybe, just maybe, these yogis and I will see you on Thursdays in Wooden.

Aubrey Freitas is an undergraduate student at UCLA double majoring in English Literature and Psychology with a minor in Italian. She is a blogger for the UCLA Healthy Campus Initiative in the Mind Well section, which focuses on the importance of mindfulness and mental health. Aubrey is the founder of the organization Warm Hearts to Warm Hands, which teaches the skill of knitting to people of the community in return for their donation of an article of clothing they create with the skill, to be given to local homeless shelters.