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L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth

Like so many kids, Val Weisler experienced her fair share of bullying when she was in high school.

It left her feeling ostracized and alone, that is until she realized she was far from the only one being bullied.

"I thought I was the only person dealing with it, and then I saw another student being bullied," admits Val. "I went up to him and I just said the two words I was hoping that someone would tell me: 'You matter.'"


The boy told her that her coming up to him and expressing what she did made him feel validated.  

That interaction sparked an idea in Val — if all kids who are bullied were told that they matter, maybe bullying could become a thing of the past?  

So she started an organization dedicated to doing just that, which she appropriately named The Validation Project.

Photo via Weisler/The Validation Project.

But teaching kids that they have worth is just part of its mission. Ultimately, the project endeavors to give kids the resources they need to take their newfound confidence and become social good activists.

They also teach kids that there's no reason to wait until they grow up to make an impact.

"Remember in elementary school, everyone would ask you what you want to do when you grow up? Well, here at The Validation Project, we ask you what you want to do NOW because there's no reason to wait to change the world," their site notes.

So far, The Validation Project has reached 6,000 teens and over 1,000 schools in 105 countries, but that doesn't mean Val's stopped connecting with individual kids.

In fact, she recently visited Camp Scuffy, which is near where she grew up in Ramapo, New York, to share what she's learned with the kids there.

Photo via Upworthy.

Not only does she teach her kindness curriculum, which has helped reduce bullying significantly in the 1,000 schools that implement it, she helps kids hone in on a social justice issue that they're passionate about so they can start doing something to support it.

"My favorite thing is watching how quickly a kid can come up with an idea when you give them a marker a poster board and you ask them what they care about," says Val.

She also acts as a cheerleader for them if they're feeling defeated for whatever reason, and constantly reminds them that they're worth it. Those moments are as equally validating for her as they seem to be for the teen she's connecting with.

Photo via Upworthy.

It's no surprise that the Validation Project has received accolades for its work. Thanks to that attention, Val is looking towards the future and how she can reach even more kids who need a boost.

For example, she was recently a recipient of the L'Oreal Paris Women of Worth Award, which acknowledges women who are giving back to their communities in extraordinary ways, and it's opened up so many possibilities for her.

"It's elevated the Validation Project so I can reach the communities that really need to hear my message," explains Val.

But most importantly, it's reminded her why her mission is so important, especially in the face of the many social challenges kids face today.

"Knowing you’re worth it is the foundation of anybody’s sense of confidence, anybody’s sense of self-worth, sense of caring for themselves and caring for the world," she says. "That’s why I do what I do."

Learn more about Val and The Validation Project here:

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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