June 4th, 2020

Findings from the Founder of Atlas Mental Health

Hi everyone -- a little late to the party but I've read through most of the posts and I'm really grateful that this forum exists. For some context, I graduated from Stanford University a while back and I'm one of the founders of a tier 1 mental health / SEL platform specifically created for teenagers. We're the country's first tech start-up in residence based out of a high school; we've been incubated and co-developed by Convent and Stuart Hall in San Francisco. We believe that if we're creating technology for teenagers and educators, then teenagers and educators need to have a seat at the table, co-developing the app with us every step of the way. This spring we were able to support thousands of students and over 75 schools across the country for free.

We've worked with hundreds of teachers and a number of students on this topic and here are a few of our findings with respect to SEL and the challenges of integrating it, especially in a high school setting.


1) Branding and Language: the competencies, concepts and strategies that one learns in an SEL curriculum are virtually the same as what you would find in a $300 / hour therapy session in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and Interpersonal Therapy. Emotion regulation and identification, mindfulness practice, breath work, positive psychology, gratitude practice, perspective taking, empathy building, growth mindset work, etc...Perhaps this distinction was necessary when mental health was more easily conflated with mental illness, the difference in language served to introduce these concepts while avoiding stigma. And while stigma still exists and there is still need for greater psycho-education, we are at a cultural inflection point, with the rise of celebrities and popular figures opening up about their experiences, where teenagers are more accepting of mental health as being a larger spectrum rather than just the tier 3 side of the continuum.

The term SEL is popular in elementary and middle schools, but when students get to high school what exactly does SEL mean to them? The concepts and strategies are the same, and in fact, they are arguably more needed during those teenage years (over 30% of all teens struggle with anxiety) but because of the linguistic bifurcation of SEL and mental health, teenagers struggle to connect the dots between the two. Consequently, we have found that teenagers view "SEL" as a nice to have, a vitamin, rather than the pain-killer that we as educators and researchers know it to be as it relates to supporting mental health. And to be clear, when I say mental health, I'm not just referring to alleviating depression or anxiety, I'm talking about prevention, promotion, and more importantly optimizing performance in academics, athletics, arts, relationships and sleep. Mental health impacts every aspect of our life. From a brand perspective, we have had teenagers tell us that "SEL is not cool. Sad boy culture and mental health are more in because Billie Eilish and Drake have made it easier to be in your feelz." Shifting language especially as students get older might be an interesting area to explore as we look to make SEL more accessible and impactful to high school students.

2) Curriculum and Engagement: In line with point one, high school students have also expressed that existing SEL curriculum are not engaging. They feel that it does not speak to the every day experience of a modern teen. To paraphrase one student, "we have short attention spans and given the quality of content that we're exposed to on a daily basis from Instagram, Youtube, and now Tik Tok...it's really hard for me to take my history teacher seriously when he's trying to teach me about my feelings from a box or from a pdf packet." When delivered in a way that speaks to the teen experience, SEL really hits hard. There's a reason why social media influencers both big and small have received millions of "likes" and comments that talk about how meaningful and impactful their post was when all the poster did was open up and introduce a common SEL exercise / idea.


3) Leveraging Technology: According to a 2019 study from Common Sense Media, teenagers spend an average of 7 hours and 22 minutes a day consuming entertainment through a screen (phone / computer). Despite the negative effects of certain social media platforms, the reality is that Tik Tok, Youtube, and Instagram are three of the world's largest education platforms for teenagers. Every single one of them are content platforms where teens spend hours consuming, consuming, consuming new ideas on their phones. SEL is about creating habits of wellness. Teens cannot build these habits in 45 minutes of high school health class that meets once a week. These SEL exercises and skills need to be practiced as much as possible ideally applied in real time in every day situations. We've reached a great checkpoint in SEL and mental health research...we know these exercises and practices work, now our attention must turn to compliance, engagement, and habit-building. My Atlas team and I have been working on this dream: how might we take the sticky and positive parts of popular social media apps and create an SEL / wellness app where teens can practice these exercises without even realizing it, an app that seamlessly fits into their every day life. How might we create content that uses language and situations that teens really resonate with to improve engagement? How might we "sneak the vegetables with the mac and cheese?"

We've learned a lot about the intersection of tech, SEL, mental health, content creation and digital Gen-Z behaviors. Happy to share more on what we've learned so far working with schools and kiddos across the country. This post is already pretty long but if you have any questions feel free to comment or shoot me an email at max@atlasmh.com

Crisis Textline volume has increased by over 40% since COVID shut down schools. They host over 100,000 conversations a month. SEL, mental health, and figuring out effective ways to integrate these practices in schools are now more important than ever. So glad that this forum and these initiatives exist -- thank you Tony, Linda, Jennifer and Cindy for bringing us all together :)

Tags: leadership, Mental health, SEL & Remote learning, student-centered

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