Newark-based startup MindRight is flipping the script on mental health support for teens
Published September 14, 2018 | Kei-Sygh Thomas
- Trauma can have a significant impact on students, but many schools don’t have the staff and resources to help their students cope.
- A recent study reported that more Newark students are coping with trauma than their peers throughout the state.
- Newark-based education tech startup MindRight is addressing this by providing a technology that lets teens talk with coaches during tough moments, and on an ongoing basis.
- Newark high schools and organizations, like She Wins, have already adopted MindRight and are reporting successful outcomes. 90 percent of all MindRight users reported improved stress management.
- MindRight currently has 400 active students at schools in Newark, Camden, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. They want to continue to expand to other locales, and to use their data to show the positive benefits of investing in mental health support for youth.
This September—and even earlier in some cases—students from all five wards commenced a new school year in Newark.
But while the new beginning can engender excitement and anxiousness for what the school year might bring, there’s another, darker reality some students must contend with as the year gets underway.
It’s trauma. And when some Newark students walk into their school buildings and classrooms each day, trauma is like the bookbag they always carry and might never have the chance to unpack.
It’s an often-silent struggle that Ashley Edwards, co-founder and CEO of tech startup MindRight, felt compelled to address based on her own experiences in the classroom.
“I saw the impact of trauma on my students,” said Edwards, a former school administrator. “Our school had very little mental health support when we know our students are coming to school days after their friends are being killed or having been impacted by mass incarceration.”
The school employed a single, part-time social worker who was tasked with supporting hundreds of students. This chasm—between the need for mental health support and the dearth of resources allotted to providing it—galvanized Edwards and her Stanford University graduate school classmate, Alina Liao, to co-found MindRight. The two women of color run the Newark-based non-profit organization, which leverages technology to create systemic healing for youth of color. Edwards has already been recognized on the Forbes 30 under 30 Social Entrepreneur list for her work on MindRight.
MindRight’s technology lets teens text a team of coaches who reach out to help prevent crises, and then provide ongoing coaching afterwards. MindRight calls this “on-demand socioemotional coaching,” and it helps students learn how to cope with everyday stress and trauma.
Edwards had been Director of Operations at Newark Prep charter high school (the state shut down its operation last school year due to poor performance, a few years after Edwards left in 2014). The experience in a school environment gave Edwards additional motivation—and the pilot group she needed to optimize MindRight’s approach. While at Stanford, she had researched the impact of trauma on brain development and chronic stress, particularly on communities of color, and to consider what types of resources could address the problem for teens.
“Kids are always on their phones, so text messaging seemed like the natural way to go,” said Edwards.
Poor black/Latino children are more likely exposed to trauma, less likely to access a school counselor
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are defined as stressful or traumatic events strongly correlated with development and health problems throughout a person’s life. When children are exposed to chronic stressful events, their neurodevelopment can be disrupted, and their ability to cope with disruptive emotions impaired. As a result, negative coping methods such as drug, alcohol use or self-harm often start in adolescence and can be compounded into adulthood.
“The reality is one counselor for 500 kids in the average urban school district. The needs of the students aren’t being heard by anyone in the school. With MindRight, we are able to reach every student every day with a caring adult through technology,” Edwards said, referring to the MindRight coaches who interact with the students.
In March, Advocates for Children of New Jersey released Newark Kids Count, a study that reported statics about the wellbeing of children under age 18. Black children account for 51 percent of study population, and Hispanic children account for 38 percent. The data demonstrates that children in Newark are many times more likely to be impacted by a cross-section of adverse childhood experiences than the average child statewide.
The nine ACEs are poverty, parental divorce or separation, the death of a parent, incarceration, domestic violence, witnessing or being a victim of violence, household mental illness, substance abuse, and racism and discrimination.
“From our pilot with Newark Public Schools the second half of school year 2018, about 50 percent of students surveyed had ACEs scores of 3 or higher, which studies have found to be associated with greater risk of negative health outcomes,” said Liao. Though some students have lower ACEs scores, it does not guarantee they do not have trauma.
“Trauma is a personal experience unique to each individual. What is traumatizing for me might not be for you, and the level of supports we have can influence how the same trauma affects us in the long run.”
Not only do these experiences transcend the home, but children can sometimes be exposed to similar experiences, like violence, at school. Trusting relationships with caring adults can help buffer the effects of this trauma in children. With MindRight, students can communicate with coaches who text them daily for real-time check-ins.
“We can’t just talk to kids when they’re having a bad day. We want to be there, celebrate them on good days, and make MindRight a safe space for joy,” said Liao, who in addition to being a co-founder is also Chief Operations Officer.
In significant contrast to the one part-time counselor for hundreds of students that so jolted Edwards, MindRight’s coach-to-student ratio is six-to-one—yes, that’s six coaches for each student. Coaches are monitored by a clinical social worker who can intervene if they think a student’s situation might require a clinical solution.
“Our work is being able to scale the reach of school student support teams who may not otherwise have the resources or capacity themselves to be able to reach every student. So far, the feedback that we have gotten back from schools is that we have been doing that for them,” said Edwards. The organization has partnered with several Newark schools including East Side, West Side, and Science Park High Schools.
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Destigmatizing mental health, showing results through data-driven reports
When MindRight begins an engagement with a school or other group that serves teens, they first conduct a focus group to meet students face-to-face and understand their perceptions about mental health. Edwards said many students associated mental health with terms like “strait jackets,” “insane asylums,” and “crazy.” Ninety-nine percent of their students are Black or Hispanic.
“There’s a stigma around mental health that we’re trying to break down. Students we’ve talked to have said that there’s a mental anxiety or [expressed fear of] being judged or pitied,” said Liao. Students find they are able to be more honest with MindRight coaches than a school counselor, parents, or friends.
The teams of six coaches per student help maintain consistency, build trust and ensure that no student falls through the cracks. Coaching teams produce quantitative reports for schools and organizations assessing overall wellness, and they collaborate to identify which students could use extra support. MindRight currently has 400 active students at schools in Newark, Camden, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Seventy percent used MindRight for seven weeks or longer, and 90 percent reported improved stress management.
“If we’re going to talk about anything in educational development, we have to address the mental and emotional wellbeing of our kids. I work with kids who endured even more adversity than I have,” said Liao, reflecting on her time at Yale when she volunteered at an elementary school in New Haven, Connecticut.
Liao’s mother struggled with mental illness and depression, and attempted suicide when she was 13 years old. Liao said it was a confusing time for herself and her family, but she calls on that experience as an entry point to relate to the youth she works with.
“I saw a pattern of kids struggling emotionally because of the adversity they face. They were labeled as ‘problem kids’ when they acted out, when that is how anyone of us would respond if we’ve been through extreme adversity. If we continue to ignore how our kids are actually feeling, aren’t we telling them that they don’t matter?”
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