By Kristen Mitchell
Senior Kyrah Altman has been trying to change the world for as long as she can remember. Through a revolutionary approach to mental health education for young people, she hopes her nonprofit can do just that.
Ms. Altman, who is majoring in human services and social justice with a minor in public health, is the executive director of LEAD, Inc. (Let’s Empower, Advocate and Do), an organization she co-founded with friends in high school has become her life’s work. The nonprofit aims to provide health educators with a holistic health curriculum, that incorporates mental health and social and emotional learning into existing, outdated and physical-health-focused frameworks.
It’s the kind of knowledge she could have used as a high school student, she said. From the outside, her life looked perfect—her peers in Leominster, Mass., saw her as a straight A student with a bright future. However, a challenging home life and unresolved childhood trauma made her feel anxious, depressed and in crisis.
“For me, knowing I wasn’t alone would have been helpful and empowering,” Ms. Altman said. “Also knowing that treatment was available and not feeling stigmatized.”
One in five young people experience a mental health condition every year, and half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health.
Ms. Altman channeled her distress into planning events and fundraisers for social change, including a benefit for Sandy Hook Foundation. She and her friends found that mental health intersected with every issue they cared about, from addiction to gun violence. If they stood a chance at addressing some of the most important social issues of the day, they needed to get at the root of the problem, Ms. Altman said. This inspired them to create LEAD and advocate for changes to their high school’s outdated health education curriculum.
Ms. Altman and LEAD’s co-founders decided to put their organization on hold as they branched out during college, but she kept returning to their mission.
Ms. Altman decided to reboot LEAD when she heard about the 2017 New Venture Competition, and see if she could develop a viable business plan to sell holistic health curriculum and mental health training to school districts. Lacking a business background, Ms. Altman went to every workshop and seminar put on by the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship she could fit in her schedule to learn how to make her venture a success. She walked away from the competition with the second place overall prize, recognition as the best social venture, $32,000 in seed funding and a plan for her future.
Over the last several years, Ms. Altman’s life has been a whirlwind, juggling school with her work as a nonprofit leader and running LEAD out of the GW Innovation Center. She officially incorporated LEAD in 2016, and the organization began piloting TryHealth, a supplemental health curriculum that meets national and Massachusetts education standards, in multiple school districts as part of a national pilot program. The organization has also developed an online platform, called HealthLab, for teachers with screening tools, data collection techniques and other resources on how to help students in crisis. The HealthLab and TryHealth curriculum makeup LEAD’s Health Educator Toolkit.
LEAD has studied the results of these pilot programs carefully, Ms. Altman said. They have found an increase in care-seeking behaviors, self-advocacy skills, and utilization of self-care strategies by students who have been taught the TryHealth curriculum.
LEAD has also expanded its training for educators, from 8-hour Youth Mental Health First Aid certification to 60-90 minute professional development courses for staff. These topics dive deeper into subjects like, trauma-informed teaching and mindfulness in the classroom.
“This training allows schools to be a place of nurturing and love and support for students who don’t have that at home,” she said. “For a lot of kids that is the only place they can get it.”
Ms. Altman hopes to raise an additional $100,000 as part of a launch campaign this spring as she turns her full attention to LEAD after graduation. The campaign would enable LEAD to work toward its goal of getting the Health Educator Toolkit into the hands of every health educator in the U.S. by 2025.
LEAD’s TryHealth curriculum includes information about mental illness, how to seek professional help and how to improve emotional wellness through stress management and coping skills. It also focuses on issues like consent and sexual harassment that aren’t always covered in school. Whether you have a mental illness or not, you can always improve your mental health, Ms. Altman said.
“We are trying to revolutionize health education and push the limits to what we view is the ideal health class for high school students, with the information we wish we had but never received,” she said.
Ms. Altman and her colleagues have also approached this issue from a policy perspective. They have worked with Massachusetts state legislators to introduce a bill that promotes mental health education for teens and encourages them to adopt TryHealth. LEAD also works closely with youth-serving organizations like summer camps and local nonprofits to train local leaders on how to best help students and plans to expand these efforts.
Ms. Altman’s prowess as an entrepreneur has grown with LEAD. As a second-year student, she became the country’s youngest youth mental health first aid instructor in the U.S., according to the National Council for Behavioral Health. She was named the this year’s Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards Regional Winner and went on to take third at the National EO Global Students Entrepreneurship Awards.
More than twenty GW students have been instrumental in LEAD’s growth, working with the organization as interns and fellows as opportunities expanded. Ms. Altman plans to hire for more of these positions this summer.
Ms. Altman plans to move back to Massachusetts to focus on LEAD full time alongside Lauren Wilkins, a senior at Northeastern and the organization’s director of education. She also wants to be near her younger siblings as they enter their teen years, when they are most vulnerable to the issues she faced growing up.
“When I first started taking my mental health seriously, I was in crisis,” Ms. Altman said. “If we’re able to focus on early intervention and helping kids proactively when signs and symptoms first start appearing then it’s not going to get to that crisis situation and their recovery is going to be faster and more effective as well.”
The 2019 New Venture Competition finals will be held on April 18. Tickets are available now.