JTT, corded phones, + our latest report

Maya Smith is Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation.

Our latest report, Youth Mental Health in America: Understanding Resource Availability and Preferences, is here and reading these young people’s stories reminds me so much of my own experience growing up.

In the kitchen of my childhood home, we had a phone on the wall with a long cord. It rang all day and I would sit on the stairs next to the kitchen twisting the rubber through my fingers and talking to my friends about everything from our classes and teachers to if Devon Sawa was hotter than Jonathan Taylor Thomas (he’s not, in case you’re wondering). If my parents tried to make a call, the phone would click and I would sigh and say, “Mommmm, I’m on the phone.”

One weekend morning the phone rang and it was one of my closest friends. She had decided to run away and she was calling from a pay phone in the Hoboken train station. She told me she only saw two ways out, running away or ending her life. This was not the conversation that I was used to having on those brown-carpeted stairs and I did not know what to tell her. I put the phone down, making her promise to hold on, and I got my mom. I sat next to my mom while she calmly listened, firmly spoke, and collaboratively problem solved. My friend returned home, and she is alive and thriving today.

I am fortunate to be the daughter of a psychoanalyst, a woman who listened non-judgmentally and a woman who – though she may have closed the door to her bedroom and cried many nights about the conversations she had to have with me and with my friends – showed up every day to listen, share, and connect.

This week, Born This Way Foundation released our latest research which you can read in full detail here. It can be easy to make assumptions about how young people are feeling or what they need, but we believe the only way to actually know is to ask youth themselves. So that’s what we did. We asked more than 2,000 young people ages 13 to 24 across the country to tell us about their own perceptions of their mental health as well as their access to and opinions about a variety of mental health resources. And here are three facts that stand out most to me:

  • One in three young people don’t have reliable access to the resources they need to maintain their mental health.
  • When asked what barriers are stopping them from accessing those resources, nearly half (47%) of young people said they don’t know where to go to find them.
  • Far too many young people are unprepared for common but serious and potentially life threatening situations, with 48% of young people saying they would not have the resources needed if they felt suicidal.

This hits home for me, not just because of that call more than two decades ago, but also because of the young people I meet and talk to every single day. I know young people value their mental health – our survey agrees with nearly 90% of respondents reporting mental health is a priority – and I know they want to help themselves and each other, both in times of crisis and proactively every day. The conversation my mom had sitting on those carpeted steps was the urgent and hopeful one my friend needed in that moment and is the same type of conversation young people today need to be able to have with people who are trusted and prepared.

I want to tell you about this research both because I am proud of it as the Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation and because I believe in listening to young people, asking them to solve the problems they are facing by imagining the world they want to live in, and then leveraging every platform, relationship, and network I have to help them achieve that vision. I know that when tasked with addressing the mental health crisis in our country and in our world, young people are and will continue to rise to the challenge and rely on their resilience, passion, collaboration, and lived experience.

I also want to tell you about this research (and ask that you share it, far and wide). As a mother, daughter, wife, aunt, friend, and neighbor, I can only hope my daughter will hand me the phone one day and I’ll be able to support her in the same way my mom supported me. And until then (she’s three), I want you to know the members of the Born This Way Foundation team bring each of our roles to work with us each day and we do this work for ourselves and for each other – for deeply personal and important professional reasons. We are committed to amplifying and sharing stories, modeling and supporting conversations, and building and supporting resources and solutions and I know I speak for all of us when I say it is our privilege to do this work and to share this important research.

Click here to read the full report: Youth Mental Health in America: Understanding Resource Availability and Preferences.

He Ready

Alex Aide is Program Manager for Born This Way Foundation

This is a picture from my speech last week that I’m really, really proud to say went well. I had the opportunity to give a presentation to introduce our upcoming programming in Las Vegas to partners and nonprofits making a difference for young people in the community there.  This photo captures me meeting many of them for the first time, and it will forever be special to me for that reason alone.

[@AlexAide on Instagram]

I want to tell you another reason why I love this picture, but to do that, I need to be more honest in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been with most people in my life. I’m coming out of one of the worst depression episodes I’ve ever experienced after a really rough 2018.

Depression has always been something I’ve managed, but like most of our journeys, I have peaks and valleys. I’m also a bit of a reluctant speaker. Even with a simple event like this, I stress and prep wildly when I know I have to speak. I don’t tell you this for sympathy or to think I’m incapable. I tell you this because — look closer.  The man in that picture is in front of a room full of important people and partners who came to learn about what Born This Way Foundation is doing in Las Vegas and how we might work together. And in this picture, I see someone who wants to shine on behalf of the Born This Way Foundation Team. I see someone who is standing straight, tall, and with confidence because, despite any self-doubt and nervousness during preparation, he told himself over and over again *in his strongest Tiffany Haddish’s voice* “he ready.”  And when the time came to present, he 👏 was 👏 ready 👏.  

Yes, I see my depression in the picture — but not the sadness or anxiety associated with it.  Rather, I see the strength and resiliency it has given me through healing time and time again. And the knowledge behind my eyes that if things get rough again, I will always come back swinging.

I’m sharing my feelings about this picture with you because, ultimately, this (albeit, very visually basic) picture isn’t even about me. It’s for you and every other person in my life, past and present, who have helped me pick up the pieces without judgment again and again. The ones that push me to be the best I can be and never let me forget who I am even when I’m not sure anymore. The ones that still send me dog memes even when I don’t have Instagram. The ones that cheer me on at the beginning, middle, and end of each race. Members of the BTWF community like you who make the world a kinder and braver place.  I got back up again this January, swinging, because of you.

Your love and kindness mean more to me than you’ll ever know. I left that speech feeling like I could do anything, and I haven’t felt like that in forever. And you know what? I think I will. I’ll be sure to remind you of the same when you need it. Here’s to the next one.

He ready.

Abundance + Vegas

Maya Smith is Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation

I am a glass half full type of person, I’ve always been. I thought I was more popular than I was, I thought the yellow plaid pants I got on a family trip to Italy were trend-setting and catwalk worthy and even in the face of naysayers and pessimists, and I believe wholeheartedly in the power young people have to change the world.

For the next two years, I get to run around Las Vegas armed with those beliefs and my glass half full personality. As we prepared for last week’s launch of our programming in Las Vegas, I’ve been talking to young people, about young people, and with young people and I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of abundance and how we view it and leverage it differently.

Last week, Team Born This Way Foundation had the opportunity to connect with local organizations, host a strategy breakfast to introduce our work and also tour the homes of some high impact non-profits making a different in the lives of young people. In a couple of those inter-generational meetings, comments have come up that made me laugh – and think. The story of a young woman, eager to move up the ladder in her corporate job asking the boss how to get her job and when. The boss telling me this heard a story about a young woman’s sense of entitlement, but I heard a story about an abundance of confidence. An education leader cautioning us about the use of technology for young people and the inevitable erosion of the face-to-face social fabric that connects us. I assured him that my generation would manage to leverage technology to build social ties and go to the movies with our classmates – we have an abundance of ways to connect and communicate.

When I gave the closing remarks of a non-profit convening, in the beautiful private dining room of the Park MGM, and saw an abundance of delicious food (shout out to the avocado toast #Millennials) I asked for to go containers so that these non-profit leaders could take this delicious food back to the young people they serve, some of whom would eat their first and only meal of the day from those containers. That morning, we had an abundance of food. I know that my vantage point is one steeped in privilege and in the true comfort of having never known scarcity in any form. But it is because I’ve never experienced what so many of the young people that I work with experience, that I am constantly and obsessively searching for abundance in all of its forms and ways to share and defend it.

I’m just following my boss’ lead. At the end of her fabulous Enigma show, Lady Gaga told the crowd: “Don’t leave here loving me more, leave here loving yourself more.” She wanted to share the abundance of love and support she felt from the audience that night, not hoard it for herself, serving her own ego.

“Don’t leave here loving me more, leave here loving yourself more.”

– Lady Gaga

Abundance even got me in trouble, as I sat around a table with the young people from Project 150 and listened to the long list of urgent needs that they had. Their founder said the young people need toiletries and I thought of my hotel room, the hotel rooms of the people sitting around the table with me, and the hotel rooms of all the people that would fill the Park MGM Theater for Enigma. So I told our team (and the Internet) to bring toiletries to the show. As it turns out, that’s a hard and very complicated thing to execute for security and for our friends at MGM so thank you to the patient, kind team that instead of telling me “no,” smiled and said, “of course.” I want to promise you that I won’t do it again but I can’t, because I will. We all will. This is what the Born This Way Foundation team came to Las Vegas to do.

Las Vegas is a city of abundance; an abundance of bright lights, an abundance of delicious restaurants that I am committed to trying, an abundance of discretionary money won and devastating money lost, and an abundance of talent and entertainment and noise. It is also a city with an abundance of passionate community members and energized non-profit and civic leaders. In the short time we’ve been in Las Vegas so far, I am happy to report that the most abundant resource in Las Vegas – by far – is the passion, energy, and vision of the young people that call this city home.

Here are a few of the organizations we had the pleasure to meet with:
Top: Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth
Center: Josh’s Youth Ambassadors program at Western High School
Bottom: Project 150

Be an Anchor in 2019

Maya Smith is Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation

As my husband and son watched the Rose Bowl and my daughter napped, I sat on my couch with a new sketch book and traced the letters of the words I write most often – Be Kind – in pencil first and then in a permanent, black marker. Under the words, I wrote and underlined three categories; myself, my family, and the world and stared at the empty columns hoping that some brilliance would come to me. The brilliance has not come yet, so I’m writing this blog and hoping that by sharing my intention and inviting you to share yours, we can fill pages together.

Last month during one of our staff meetings, my colleague Aysha told me about the Find Your Anchor box. It’s a box literally filled with kind messages, affirmations, and positive images. The goal of this organization is to erase suicide and ensure that everyone is able to establish an anchor, which they define as “a dependable, stable, secure base that you can hold onto, one that keeps you firmly planted, no matter what winds or storms may come.” I fell in love with the concept, found my next tattoo (I’m sorry, Mom), and ordered two. I brought one with me to Las Vegas last week and carried it around with me everywhere I went, hoping to find someone who needed it more than I did. In each interaction, personal and professional, I asked people how they were, how they were feeling, and how their friends and family were doing. In both blatant and awkward ways and in more subtle and rehearsed ways, I wanted to know about the anchors in the lives of the people around me.

Marques was one of my drivers in Las Vegas. Before we even met, he texted me to ask me if I wanted to coffee, happily shuffled locations as my meetings ran over, arrived 15 minutes early, and on a particularly hectic day when we first met, his bright smile and kind spirit stopped me in my tracks. I sat down in the passenger seat, breathing a sigh of relaxation as he drove me to my next meeting. We chatted about his time in Las Vegas, his childhood outside of Los Angeles and he asked me questions about my work and my family. As most conversations between parents during the holidays go, I shared the story of my children on Christmas morning discovering their new hot wheels next to the Christmas tree. My heart was warmed by the memory and I invited Marques to share his Christmas morning story with his two daughters. “I didn’t see them on Christmas, I wasn’t OK” he answered, teetering on emotion for the first time and trying to change the subject. I gently pressed and invited him to share if he wanted to. Marques wanted to, so he bravely shared his difficult childhood, his often uncontrollable anger, his undeniable and overwhelming love for his daughters and his wife, and his difficult journey to become the type of man that he feels they deserve. Through tears, honesty and bravery, he shared an unimaginably difficult story with me as well as his recent decision to share his journey at work (thankfully met with support and understanding) and seek treatment. Marques didn’t know how the story would end but he knew – for the first time in a long time – that he wouldn’t end his story and that he’d keep fighting.

As Marques sat next to me trembling and crying while still expertly navigating the Las Vegas interstate, I rifled through my purse and opened up the Find Your Anchor box. I took out the note that read, “You are loved, Maya” and wrote, “You are loved, Marques” and handed him the box. I told him that I had been holding onto this box, from New York to California and now Las Vegas, and wanted to give it to someone who needed to be reminded of their anchor, of their strength, and of the need the world has for them. I got out of the car, hugged Marques, and went to yet another meeting – one Find Your Box lighter and one connection stronger.

Far too many people believe that no one wants to hear their stories, that people will fear their stories, and that people will judge their stories. I wasn’t out-of-the-ordinary kind to Marques, I’m so grateful he picked me to share with, and I am not sure how telling you his story will help with my resolution but I think the key to building a kinder and braver world is to share the beautiful stories, the difficult stories and to invest in them; to anchor ourselves in those stories and the people behind them. The key is to keep filling the pages of this story together, some days they’ll be blank or tattered and other days we’ll put hearts over the i’s and draw smiley faces, but if Marques isn’t giving up, if the team at Born This Way Foundation and I are doubling down, then join us, please.

It’s OK Not to Be OK

Emma is one of the oldest and most treasured members of the BTWF family.

I’ve had the honor and privilege of writing numerous blogs for Born This Way Foundation. Many know a portion of my story, but today, I am sharing a part of me that I am scared to death of. As I write this blog, I’m wrestling with my own feelings: when people read the words “I am disabled and depressed,” what will they think?

All too often, the juxtaposition of disability and mental health–particularly those with severe physical disabilities, such as my own–is incredibly stigmatized. The “be strong” mentality is rampant among the disability community, both by society-at-large and sometimes disabled people themselves. I know – I forced myself to conform to it.

About two months ago, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Looking back at my childhood, the symptoms of PTSD–an anxiety disorder that manifests due to, as the name implies, trauma–were obvious, occurring as young as three. When I think back to three-year-old me, confused after undergoing massive hip surgery to realign both of my dislocated hips and being body casted, I think of a child who is physically and mentally broken. One who feels out of place and misunderstood. Since then, I’ve had around 30 surgeries and procedures.

Later in childhood, I avoided hospitals, physical therapy, and sometimes even my own body in the mirror. By society’s standards, I found my body to be grotesque and less than. This was always exacerbated by medicine and in particular, any procedure that made me look or function at a different level than what most people were accustomed to. Many times throughout childhood, I would have massive, sometimes life-saving procedures and with that came an incredible amount of anxiety. I was always terrified of the stares. Of the constant, never-ending stream of “what happened?” During difficult periods of recovery, I would become reclusive – going so far as to hide from my own family. Even in adulthood, I experience a lot of the same triggers. I’ve had flashbacks, for example, and have a majorly warped body image.

Research shows that those with developmental disabilities are more likely than their neurotypical peers to experience trauma. This can be for a number of reasons, including neglect, physical or emotional abuse, or, you guessed it, invasive medical procedures. And yet, despite the fact that I constantly validate others’ feelings, I continue to deny my trauma and my PTSD diagnosis. I constantly minimize what happened to me as though I didn’t do enough to “earn it.” When I become triggered, I wrestle with the thought of being a burden on my family; with it being “my fault.” I wrestle with the thought that in childhood, I didn’t do enough to make it better. “Maybe,” my mind says, “had I done more then, I’d be more able now.” Maybe, I’d have more worth. More to give. Maybe, I’d be able to think more positively like so many others who have similar diagnoses, who say they never feel sad. Maybe, I could be strong and fit the mold that so many people see me as.

Whether we realize it or not, there is a very real and toxic mentality that those with disabilities and/or chronic illness should not or do not feel negative emotions connected with their diagnoses. What I’ve realized now is that I am entitled to those feelings. Just as anyone else, I am entitled to my humanity.

And so are you.