When Boyan Slat was 16 years old, he decided to try to save the ocean.

"I've always been making stuff," Slat said. Now he's 21, a young man with full hair, and he says he's been an inventor since he was young. He built tree houses and ziplines in his native Netherlands as a child. And once, when he was 12, he decided to see what would happen if he launched 250 model rockets at the same time.

"I liked problem-solving, but what I didn't really have was a real problem to work on."


He found that problem while scuba diving in Greece.

"I was expecting to see beautiful stuff underwater, but I saw more plastic bags than fish."

After his dive, Slat did more research, and he learned that plastic is a serious problem. A very serious problem. In fact, the ocean is currently full of an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic.

A volunteer collects rubbish in Manila Bay in the Philippines. Photo from Jay Director/AFP/Getty Images.

This plastic tends to accumulate in large patches such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific and kills birds, fish, and all manner of sea life.

"And I thought, well, why don't we just clean this up?" said Slat.

A lot of people were doubtful the garbage problem could ever be solved, but Slat started to look for solutions anyway.

"Everyone on the internet was saying it was impossible to clean up, and I thought, well, that’s quite a big statement," Slat said.

After a span of time, 16-year-old Slat hit on an idea: Instead of chasing individual patches of trash across the ocean, he figured he could flip the scenario and use the ocean's currents to move the trash to a stationary device instead.

Slat founded his foundation, The Ocean Cleanup, in 2013.

The Ocean Cleanup's main work is developing the system Slat thought up when he was 16. It's a system designed to remove plastic debris from the ocean by placing floating barriers in strategic points along ocean currents, funneling the trash toward central removers.

Artist's impression of the system. Image from Erwin Zwart/The Ocean Cleanup, used with permission.

In order to focus wholly on The Ocean Cleanup, Slat also dropped out of college, where he had been studying aerospace engineering. As for how his family took the news, he said, "I think at first they were a bit anxious about me quitting college, but I am quite glad they gave me that."

The same year, Slat presented his ocean cleanup idea in a TEDx event, where it caught the internet's attention and went viral.

"I wasn't really prepared [for the viral moment]," said Slat. "Suddenly I received about 1,500 emails per day in my personal mailbox."

That first week after the TEDx video went viral, Slat says there were so many emails that he had to invite friends to come over and help him answer the messages from his bedroom. "I was there with like five friends, with our laptops, just plowing our way through all those emails," he remembers.

From there, Slat was able to pull together a team of experts and engineers and find funding for the project.

Today, The Ocean Cleanup is on track to put Slat's device in the ocean soon.

In fact, on June 22, 2016, The Ocean Cleanup launched a prototype device in the North Sea.

Artist's impression of the prototype. Image from Erwin Zwart/The Ocean Cleanup, used with permission.

The prototype is a small-scale test of the floating-barrier system. Slat said it'll prove out whether the system can survive the tough conditions found on the open ocean (the North Sea is one of the toughest patches of water in the world). The thinking is that if the barrier can survive stresses there, the system can survive anywhere.

"To finally have something physical that you can actually see on the ocean, that you're putting through testing, and see that it works I think that's ... it's really sort of indescribable," Slat said.

"But of course it's just the beginning," added Slat. "It's just one of many tests. But it is an important milestone, that's for sure."

There's been some skepticism about whether the project will work in the end, but Slat seems both pragmatic and determined.

One of the boats that launched the prototype. Photo from The Ocean Cleanup, used with permission.

Some have questioned whether the project will be able to collect enough trash to be feasible or wonder whether sea life will be safe, as The Ocean Cleanup says it will, but Slat seems to take the skepticism in stride.

"I really think the only way to know whether it will work is the things we are doing right now — by testing, testing, testing again," Slat said. He says a little skepticism is always expected around new technology, plus it can often end up helping researchers and engineers focus on the right questions to answer.

"I think working with the right people, having the right pragmatic attitude and iterative design philosophy ... if there is a way that we can do it, we will find it."

If the North Sea prototype does well, The Ocean Cleanup will move forward on their plans to deploy a full-size system.

If everything goes according to plan, they'll be able to launch a pilot system late next year, and they may be able to start cleaning up the North Pacific by 2020.

"I'm quite optimistic about the future," Slat said. "We've shown that for many problems we've faced over the last few centuries, we've been able to make dramatic advancements in them. Think about violence, education, poverty, etc."

Of course, we have a lot of work to do to solve current environmental problems. But technology has proven itself to be incredibly powerful, and by focusing on using it for good, we can conquer this problem too.

"As long as we develop technologies that actually help solve problems, I think eventually we will get to a pretty bright future," he said.

Connections Academy

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

True

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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