When Bren Smith was 14, he dropped out of high school and went to sea.

Photo from GreenWave, used with permission.

Smith was born and raised in a small fishing village called Petty Harbour, in Newfoundland, Canada. Petty Harbour is 700 miles east of Maine, and it juts out into the Atlantic like the herald of the entire North American continent. It's so tiny that it's basically just a few saltbox houses painted in bright colors, helping fishermen find their way home in the fog.


Smith worked on boats for years, and he loved his job.

"That's where I want to spend my days," he said. Smith is now in his mid-40s. Pictures of him show a lean, bald man with varying stages of beard. He says that like a lot of fishermen, he fell in love — not so much with the ocean itself, but with the feeling of working on the ocean.

"Farming the ocean is really meaningful work," he said. "There are certain jobs, traditional jobs, like coal workers who help power the country, steel workers who helped build the country, and fishermen and farmers, who help feed the country — there's real satisfaction and meaning that comes with that."

But under the ocean's surface, things weren't going too well. One day, the jobs seemed to just disappear.

Photo from GreenWave, used with permission.

The Grand Banks, off the coast of Newfoundland, are some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. And at some point, they must have seemed endless. In 1968, fishermen brought home over 800,000 tons of cod from those waters, for instance. That's more than the weight of eight full aircraft carriers.

But starting in the 1970s, the cod's numbers started to fall. Overfishing, trawling, dragging, and government mismanagement destroyed the cod stock. And after centuries of being one of nature's greatest wonders, in 1992, the Canadian government told Newfoundland's cod fishermen that they couldn't go out fishing anymore. There were essentially no cod left to catch.

As the Earth changes, jobs go away.

The ban on cod fishing snapped the economic backbone of hundreds of rural Newfoundland communities. Over 40,000 people lost their jobs. Some fishermen got government assistance or found new jobs on land, but Smith says the real shock ran much deeper than that.

There's a famous story in Newfoundland, Smith said, about a former fisherman who got a government buyout — a check to beach his boat, essentially — "and then every morning he drives down to the dock at 5 in the morning, with his brand-new truck he bought with that government check, and drinks himself to death looking out over the ocean, wishing he was working at sea."

This tragedy wasn't about money, you see. It was never about the money. Instead, losing that job meant losing part of their culture. It meant losing a sense of meaning.

Smith had been working elsewhere, but watching his hometown's collapse affected him. So Smith changed jobs, looking for work that was truly sustainable. Over the years, he tried a bunch of different things, but it never seemed to work out. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy put an end to his oyster farming idea, for instance.

Realizing that he needed to adapt, Smith decided to invent a new job altogether. Now, he's what he calls a "3D ocean farmer."

Photo from GreenWave, used with permission.

Smith owns and runs the Thimble Island Oyster Company in Connecticut, but oysters are only part of what he does. He's actually growing an entire forest underwater.

From the shore, Smith's farms don't look like much — just a few buoys bobbing up and down in the surf. But running beneath those buoy are long ropes from which dangle kelp, seaweed, mussels, and scallop nests. Below, resting on the sea floor, Smith has cages full of oysters. Clams live in the mud below those cages. And holding it all together are heavy, hurricane-proof anchors studded along the edges.

The result looks a lot like an underwater garden or kelp forest.

A naturally occurring kelp forest. Photo from NOAA's National Ocean Service/Flickr.

These 3D farms might actually be one of the most sustainable forms of agriculture in the world.

Unlike many common foods, Smith's seaweed and shellfish need no land, fresh water, or fertilizer. Kelp also grows extremely quickly.

And while seaweed is largely absent from the American diet, it's a really common food in other parts of the world, especially in Asia. Many American chefs are now testing it in their menus.

Mmm, seaweed. Photo from GreenWave, used with permission.

There are secondary benefits to the environment from the underwater farms as well. The kelp can trap carbon, removing it from the atmosphere and reducing the impact of global warming. Shellfish can help filter pollutants and excess nitrogen out of the water. The farms can even act like coral reefs, providing a hiding place and habitat for other creatures.

"The best fishing in the entire area is surrounding our farms," said Smith. "We have seals, we have ducks, we have sea horses — all these different species that are returning to our areas."

Because of what he's learned, Smith is now helping other fishermen start underwater farms too.

Smith hauls up an oyster cage. Photo from Greenwave, used with permission.

In addition to running his farm, Smith is in charge of GreenWave, a nonprofit that helps other farmers start their own 3D ocean farms. They have a blueprint for 3D farmers to get started as easily as possible. The GreenWave team also helps farmers evaluate locations and feasibility, get permits, and set up and expand their farms.

GreenWave is still a small operation — just a handful of people working toward something they believe could change the world. But what they're doing is actually working, and they've even been awarded the 2015 Buckminster Fuller Prize for ecological design. They've also just opened a big new project, a seaweed hatchery, to help farmers supply other farmers with seed.

Ultimately, Smith thinks we could build a whole new food system using 3D ocean farms.

He wants to break the logic that leads to big, industrial farms on land and create a whole new kind of food industry — one that has sustainability and food justice at its heart.

For example, GreenWave doesn't charge farmers extra for seed, and it encourages farmers to only use local species. A farm in California won't grow the same kind of seaweed and shellfish as a farm in Maine, a practice that can help keep our food system safe from climate change and disease. And Smith says the minimum wage in their processing plants starts at $15 an hour.

There are still a lot of hurdles, of course. Americans still aren't known for their love of seaweed. And it seems like GreenWave will need to build a lot of their infrastructure from scratch, too. But these obstacles do not seem insurmountable.

To me, the most encouraging part of this story is that we can revive the kind of job Smith fell in love with.

Photo from GreenWave, used with permission.

Sometimes it's easy to think of conservation like a museum, trying to capture the world in some unchanging, static preservation, like a bug under glass.

But that's not what Smith is interested in. For him, the question has always been as much about economics as environmentalism. The question isn't "How do we make sure things never change?" The question is "How do we prepare for the future?"

"We need to build a new economy, we need to feed people, we need to create jobs, and we have to give people meaning if we're going to save the planet," Smith said. He finds that the work on his farm still has that meaningful heart that propelled him to the ocean as a teen.

As Smith put it, we have to find the space for "jobs we can still sing songs about." And we can.

Whether that's transitioning coal miners to solar power-plant workers, oil drillers to dam workers, or fishermen to ocean farmers, we can reinvent the old industries into the new.

We can still have jobs you fall in love with.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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There are a lot of reasons to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the final days of the 20th century. Rampant inflation, a global pandemic and political unrest have created a sense of uneasiness about the future that has everyone feeling a bit down.

There’s also a feeling that the current state of pop culture is lacking as well. Nobody listens to new music anymore and unless you’re into superheroes, it seems like creativity is seriously missing from the silver screen.

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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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