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The COVID-19 pandemic has added new stressors, fears, and concerns to the daily lives of people around the world. Born This Way Foundation is promoting kindness to uplift young people facing these challenges.

Launched by pop star Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta in 2012, the foundation aims to strengthen young people’s emotional and mental well-being through various programs and resources.  

The organization’s Channel Kindness digital platform empowers young people to share how they are choosing kindness in their communities. As the United States grapples with a pandemic and systemic racism, the foundation will host its third #BeKind21 campaign in September. The challenge asks participants to pledge to create a kinder world with 21 days of action –– the length of time it takes to build a habit. 

Global Citizen spoke with Born This Way Foundation Executive Director Maya Smith about how the organization is working to ensure young people prioritize their mental health.

Global Citizen: What is the most important thing that you want the public to know about mental health amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the fight against racial injustice?

Maya Smith: Mental health matters now, it mattered before the pandemic, and it'll matter after. These important moments in our history certainly highlight the need to focus on and talk about our mental health, but mental health has always been really crucial.

In these moments, you need to be creative about how we take care of ourselves.

Thinking about how to readjust mental health routines is one of the things that we've been talking a lot about to the young people in the foundation’s community, reminding them our mental health matters. However you're surviving this moment is valid.

We really want young people to be unapologetic about their self-care [and] focusing on their mental health. One of the big things that we've seen is the conversation around social versus physical distancing. We've tried really hard to reduce stigma around mental health to make it cool to get help, to validate the emotions of young people around the world.

What we're asking for in this moment is actual physical distancing, right? We're actually not asking for social distancing. We're asking for increased social connection in a period of physical distancing. As the world sort of grapples with the implications of these moments on their mental health, we just want to remember and remind people that there are still ways to connect. There are still ways to get help. There are resources out there and people to talk to. 

How do you recommend that people readjust so that they are taking care of themselves and are having those connections that they need to stay well?

The increase in the field of teletherapy has been really hopeful. 

Building a new routine around your mental health care looks different for everyone. Sometimes you might get to take a break from looking at the news. You may get overwhelmed, but you could take a nap — you might be more tired than you usually are. The same way everyone's thinking about how they can continue to take care of their body in this moment, we need to focus on creating a mental health routine that works for us and taking advantage of the resources that exist. 

Born This Way Foundation has a huge list of resources on our Get Help Now page. If you're looking to talk to somebody, if you are looking for an organization specific to an issue that you're facing, that's a great place to look.

One of the things about this moment is that people are talking about their mental health and the implications on their mental health in a way that I’m hoping will lead to a reduction around the stigma. 

This is, for most of us, the first time we've ever survived a global pandemic, and it's OK to not be OK. I think it's really important to keep saying that. 

How is Born This Way Foundation tackling the needs of different people and communities during the pandemic?

We've been pivoting our online mental health services. Most recently, we partnered with a Canadian nonprofit called Jack.org to highlight their BeThere.org tool through a campaign called Be Kind, Be There. BeThere.org is a quick resource on how to lean into hard conversations, how to ask questions, and how to share resources with someone who might be struggling.

Sometimes it’s really, really hard to say you need help or to watch a friend struggle and offer help. 

We've also been sharing many more resources with our online community. We've seen a huge growth in interactivity on our social media platforms. 

We've also been hosting more conversations. May was Mental Health Awareness month. We hosted conversations around mental health in the Black community, mental health in the LGBTQ+ community, and mental health in the Latinx community. Born This Way Foundation team members all aimed at creating inclusive, interactive conversations and spaces where people can ask for help, get resources, connect with one another, be hopeful. 

All of those things will remain parts of the organization moving forward. 

What is the most inspiring thing that you've seen is as the world tackles COVID-19 and racial injustice? 

Young people. Young people making the brave choices that they're making, whether it's to stay home to keep loved ones safe, whether it's to be out ensuring that their voices are heard on issues that matter to them and to our world. The choices that young people are making for and with each other for their future is truly the most inspiring thing.

I look at this incredible example of these two young people named Hannah and Charlie; they founded the notOK app. It's a mental health resource, and I look at the stories that they have. One of them was severely bullied and dealing with mental health issues. This app sort of operates as a panic button so that if you need support, instead of putting the burden on you to go get the support, you load five friends and then press this button that says I'm not OK. They know to come to you.

If you look at them and the work that they've been doing, people are solving problems, not only for themselves, for everyone around them. They just have such a collective consciousness around the power that they have and the future that they hope for.

How has COVID-19 and the global response to it changed your perspective of how you do your work at Born This Way Foundation?

We certainly pivoted our programming, but we do the work with the same focus and urgency and hope and collaboration that we've always done. 

As a leader in the organization, this moment has certainly changed me.

I'm definitely panicked often by this moment, especially as a mom, but the prevailing emotion that I have had has been one of hope. The way that the foundation has stepped into the work of dismantling a racist society and working toward equity and justice has been really inspiring and has changed conversations around my own dinner table.

How can people take action and help the Born This Way Foundation’s efforts at this moment?

The best place to go is BornThisWay.Foundation and learn a lot more about our work and our programs. Yesterday, we launched the third year of the Be Kind 21 campaign — it's #BeKind21 and it's around building habits of kindness.

Kindness is even more important than it ever was. It's an invitation to do more, dig into building community, into building a fair and inclusive, just world. Then we invite you to continue to share your own story and the work and inspire others.

A big piece of what we can do to reduce the stigma on mental health and to do the work around anti-racism is to share our own experiences. Born This Way Foundation, both collectively and then individually as team members, we're focused on continuing to do that as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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