An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast
Laura Horne and host Kristen Harper talk mental health and supporting wellbeing among youth and young adults. This episode is sponsored by the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network (MHTTC).
March 8, 2021
Kristen Harper, Host: (00:05) Hello, welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host today, Kristen Harper, woman in long-term recovery and Recovery Specialist at C4 Innovations. Today’s episode is sponsored by the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center. My guest is Laura Horne, Chief Program Officer at Active Minds, a national nonprofit focused on mental health promotion and education for young adults. Welcome, Laura.
Laura Horne, Guest: (00:30) Hey, Kristen. Thanks for having me.
Kristen: (00:32) We’re so glad you can join us today. I’m excited to have this conversation on mental health and young adults and youth. Can you tell us a little bit more about Active Minds please?
Laura: (00:42) Sure. And I’m very excited to be here too and to share with you more about what we’re doing. So, at Active Minds we’re working on supporting youth and their mental health and that’s wherever they may be. So, we are working in high schools, in colleges and universities, and even in the workplace. As our students graduate and enter into the workforce, we’re there to help them build culture change in their communities. And that’s what we’re really trying to do, is change the conversation about mental health, normalize it, bring it out into the open, so that we all know that we all have some connection to mental health, whatever it may be, and we can get those stories out and help each other feel we’re not alone and that there’s no shame in seeking support.
Kristen: (1:24) That’s amazing. Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing. As somebody in recovery from substance use disorder and eating disorder and mental health, I just feel like mental health gets tossed around a lot lately, and so I’d love to hear your definition of mental health.
Laura: (1:39) At Active Minds, we tend to say something that goes like this, we don’t all have mental illness, but we all have mental health. So what we’re talking about in essence is our wellbeing and how we’re feeling emotionally at any given time, both the good and the bad. And we’ve all struggled with our mental health from time to time, especially during COVID. We all know what that experience is like to go up and down with our mental health.
Laura: (2:03) Our mental health can thrive as well, and we can take action to pursue positive mental health. So, by mental health we’re including all of it, it’s emotionally how we’re doing and what we’re doing to proactively pursue mental health, positive mental health, and how are we getting support when we need it.
Kristen: (2:20) That is really helpful clarity, especially previously working with high school students and college students, I found that there were some stigma, some pretty serious stigma, attached to this idea of asking for help around mental health. In y’all’s work with youth and young adults, do you find that youth reach out to their peers more often? Or how are you integrating the use of additional young people in your work?
Laura: (2:49) Yes, we do. So about 67% of students say that they’re likely to go to a friend before anyone else when they’re struggling, and so that’s Active Minds uses a peer to peer approach. We’re looking to equip young adults to lead these conversations in their communities. So, we’re not only looking to them to inform the work that we do and the programs that we develop, but we’re looking at young adults as leaders and as equal partners in the work, and they’re helping shape the entire strategy, but also kind of on the front lines, communicating directly with their peers about the importance of mental health.
Kristen: (3:27) I imagine you work with a wide variety of different communities. Are you seeing social determinants of health play a role in the types of support services you can offer or connect young people to?
Laura: (3:40) I come to this with a public health background, and I used to work in chronic disease prevention, and often in other areas of health we are very familiar with social determinants
of health as public health professionals. We talk about how housing, food security, access to food or nutrition, or opportunities to be active all impact our health and wellbeing.
Laura: (4:02) When it comes to mental health, we also need to look at it from a social determinants lens. All of these same things, housing, access to social connection, our finances, all impact our mental health and our opportunities for positive mental health. So, everyone in every sector plays a role in supporting mental health, whether they realize it or not.
Kristen: (4:24) You mentioned COVID earlier, and I imagine during this incredibly additionally stressful time, that we’ve seen social determinants play even more of an important role through COVID and through trying to connect people maybe through digital supports. Have y’all done some work around that?
Laura: (4:41) One thing that was really interesting, depression, anxiety have been on the rise among young adults for the past decade and not only in the United States, but globally. So even before COVID, as you mentioned, we’ve been up against this rising tide of mental health issues among young adults, and then COVID happened and now young adults have all these new challenges, even more barriers to not only accessing care, but also finding social support.
Laura: (5:08) I think a lot of campus counseling centers on colleges and universities and other service providers tended to be a little bit hesitant about technology prior to COVID, or maybe some hesitancy about how to integrate apps or other technology services into their care and suite of services. I felt like there certainly wasn’t a whole lot of urgency around it. But then when COVID happened, and we had to meet people kind of where they are, I think we all realized we need to more rapidly adopt these tools and not wait to know exactly how it should work, not wait for the perfect model to come around, but go ahead and try some things and see how we can support people during this time.
Laura: (5:47) To me, that’s been one of the silver linings of the pandemic, is to see us be able to offer more options to people to care for their mental health beyond just the traditional services, so that we can learn more about when we made technology available did that increase access to care, especially for people of marginalized identities who traditionally do have significant barriers to accessing care. And when we talk to our youth, they’re always so honest. Some say that they would still prefer in-person care to virtual care, but universally, what we hear from youth is that they all appreciate having those additional options during COVID and that they hope that that’s one thing that is here to stay long-term.
Kristen: (6:31) One of the things that I’ve been hearing from just our neighbor teenagers, is they cannot wait to go back to school because they feel like sometimes it’s even worse at home with the family just crawling up the walls, and so having a digital outlet has seemed to be a huge support to them as well.
Laura: (6:51) It’s so interesting, and I think, I hear that from youth as well. And then we also hear things about being able to live with their pets and spend more time with their pets as a positive outcome of COVID. And so I know a lot of colleges and universities in particular are thinking about how do we leverage those opportunities when we go back on campus. Is there a possibility of allowing pets or other creative strategies, seeing that that’s had a positive benefit on students during this time?
Kristen: (7:24) Absolutely. My brother actually is a non-traditional undergrad student in North Carolina at a small campus, and he’s a veteran, so when he came back to campus, they allowed his service dog to go with him into the classes. Which many of the students were not used to having service dogs in the classes with them, but it really, really helped sooth his PTSD and some of the anxiety about returning to school. What’s funny about his dog is it’s a gigantic hound dog, and it drools ridiculous amounts from its mouth, and so the professors kind of had to give him a heads up, said, “Hey, we need to manage the drool. Your dog is fine, but this is going to be a problem.”
Laura: (8:06) That’s hilarious, and that’s just another example of one of those things that we might have hesitancy towards in other circumstances, but we’ve had to be a little bit more open to during this time. And so there’s a lot of benefit of out of the box thinking, taking some risks, and learning as we go, especially when we see these cases of depression, anxiety going up among young adults, we need new solutions and new strategies. I think that’s one of the benefits of listening to students and letting them be a part of the solution, is we can learn about the barriers and get some new ideas from them.
Kristen: (8:43) Absolutely. And I’ve also found peer support with other moms to be incredibly important right now for my mental health. And I know you’re a mom of three young ones. I just had my second in December. So I’m just curious, what are you doing to sort of manage momhood during such a stressful time?
Laura: (9:02) It’s interesting you say that because we’ve only lived in Philadelphia for the past year, so we’re kind of new, and I was just starting to develop some relationships with other moms when COVID came around, and I feel like it’s really cemented those relationships. Even though we’re remote from each other, we’ve gotten together a couple of times for safe play dates, but not as much as we would in other circumstances, and I feel like being able to relate to each other, being able to ask questions of each other has furthered our bond in a way that might be in on more gradual basis otherwise.
Kristen: (9:39) How old are your kids?
Laura: (9:41) They are seven, five, and two. So I’m definitely leaning on moms that are just a text away, similar to you. Doing a lot of Googling. And I remember that as a new mom, doing a lot of Googling, and I’m doing that right now with my kids and trying to figure out how to best navigate supporting them with their remote learning, but also supporting myself because so much of work and school and trying to be a parent is all blended together right now, and often I can feel like I’m not doing any of them really well.
Laura: (10:14) But I also will ask my kids sometimes about, “How do you feel about how things are going? Would you like to see more of mom? Are you feeling like you’re not seeing enough of me?” And my kids are really sweet. I don’t always know if they’re telling me exactly what they think I want to hear or telling me the truth, but I love cultivating more closer relationships with them during this time. They’re much closer to me in proximity.
Laura: (10:39) I was one of those type, I think, that always leaned into work. I love the work that I do, and I love what we do at Active Minds, and this time has really helped me prioritize them more. And I have a lot more certainty that I am being very available to them because in a way there’s no getting away from them right now. So for better or for worse, I actually feel a little bit better as a mom having so much access to them during this time, but it’s very, very difficult, as I’m sure you can relate to as well.
Kristen: (11:12) I have sort of a beautiful kind of heartbreaking story with my three-year-old daughter a couple of months after we’d been home together, and we were all here, she just looked at me and she said, “Mommy, I missed you.” And it hit me that I had been traveling a lot prior to the pandemic and just really busy and had just become pregnant with her little brother, and so had been a little bit distanced from her. And so I share in kind of the beauty and the grit, maybe, that we can look at the past 18 months or so, or not quite 18 months, hopefully it won’t be that long, but we’re getting there, as a way to kind of reconnect with each other. So I think that’s really beautiful.
Kristen: (11:54) As far as the support for her, for mental health and for our kids and for the youth and for adolescents and young adults, I feel like letting them know that it’s okay to not be okay and that there is an environment that we can support each other, it’s just going to look a little bit different. And so I’m just curious what keeps you going through this work, because I’m sure it’s been incredibly challenging and very demanding lately.
Laura: (12:21) I think what keeps me going is two things. One, I love working with our young adults, and we have a really big problem on our hands in terms of young adult mental health. We still don’t know quite why rates of depression, anxiety keep increasing. We don’t know quite what the solutions are. But just seeing how open they are talking about mental health, how vulnerable they feel comfortable being, gives me a lot of hope for the future.
Laura: (12:51) I think there’s a lot we can learn from them. And the fact that I get to do a little bit of that every day is really inspiring for me. I also think that what we’re trying to tackle in terms of mental health in our country is solvable, and it’s a really important problem to solve.
Laura: (13:12) Having worked in other areas of health, like chronic disease prevention, I’ve seen that when we focus on policy, systems, environmental change, we can make really long lasting, sustainable changes in a way that we might not be able to if we’re just spinning our wheels trying to put out classes or skill building opportunities or whatever it might be. And we need both. But when it comes to mental health, I think there’s a lot of lessons learned from other areas that we can apply here as stigma goes down, and we’re more comfortable talking about it and addressing it and bringing it out in the open, then we can start really addressing it from a systems approach.
Laura: (13:49) We know from other types of work that we do and other research out there that that kind of work really does make a difference. And so I’m really charged about knowing that there are things we can do to make a difference. That it’s really crucial. That it’s never been more crucial, especially during COVID. And so it’s a great time to be doing this work, as challenging as it is.
Laura: (14:11) I feel like the time we’re spending is time worth spending. It’s a great way to spend a life and to spend the time that I’m on the job, is trying to bridge that gap and address this issue head on.
Kristen: (14:24) If you had to give yourself any advice from about 10 or 15 years ago as a young person yourself, what would you say?
Laura: (14:37) I would say, try new things. As many new things as possible. Because what I do now is not at all what I would have dreamed I would have been doing 10 or 15 years ago, or what I even dreamed that I’d be capable of doing or was a good fit for me or possible for me. And so for me, the internships that I took, the people that I met along the way, helped unlock truths about myself that I didn’t know were there and helped me along my journey.
Laura: (15:06) The more you do, the more you try, the more experiences you expose yourself to, the more you actually learn about yourself, and you can just trust yourself and what you’re interested in doing and passionate about doing, and you’ll find yourself in a good place. It’s never too late, also, to pivot and do something different. So I always try to just look inward and trust myself and trust my gut and do what I feel called to do versus what I might put limitations on myself for.
Kristen: (15:38) Wow. Thank you. I wish I’d had that advice when I was younger as well too. Laura, thank you so much for joining us today. This was a phenomenal discussion.
Laura: (15:46) Thank you so much for having me, Kristen. It’s a real honor, and I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you too.
Kristen: (15:51) Thank you all out there in the universe for joining us today. We hope that you will join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
Erika Simon, Producer: (15:58) Visit C4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode is sponsored by New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center and was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.
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