Born This Way Foundation: Reaching Young People Directly

There has been growing attention lately, from politicians and the media, on charities founded by celebrities that spend more time talking about doing good works than actually doing them. Born This Way Foundation is not one of these.

The foundation has one mission: to make the world a kinder and braver place. It is a simple goal but not an easy task. When Lady Gaga and her mom, Cynthia Germanotta, founded the organization, they did so in the belief that the only way to fulfill this mission was by reaching young people -- by understanding what they need to become healthy individuals as well as empowered members of their communities. That's why Born This Way Foundation has worked to connect, engage, and inspire young people -- on the road, in their communities, and online.

As their public filings demonstrate, Cynthia, as president of the organization, draws no salary from Born This Way Foundation. It spends its resources directly on reaching young people, to the tune of over $3 million.

First, there was the Born Brave Bus Tour. Partnering with more than 30 local and national organizations including the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP); the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN); Active Minds; and Youth Service America, the bus tour provided key infrastructure to connect coalition groups with young people. The bus tour, which attracted over 150,000 participants between 2013 and 2014, was a place where young people could connect with one another as well as learn about important mental- and emotional-health resources in their communities and across the United States. It was a place where they could equip and empower themselves to tackle whatever problems they may be facing and be inspired to be kind and brave ambassadors in their communities.

By meeting young people where they were, the bus tour revealed a major gap in the way we approach ensuring the well-being of our young people. Academic research examines how to improve the mental and social conditions of adolescents, but what is often ignored is the translation of the research into the most effective ways to deliver such services. Traditional mental-health delivery methods that we think are appropriate, like telephone hotlines and self-help books, may not actually be useful or effective for young people. Born This Way Foundation is committed to listening to young people themselves and connecting them with the resources they prefer to use.

Second, to reach young people where they are, the foundation partnered with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Council for Behavioral Health, and the National Association of School Psychologists to collect data from more than 2,500 young people, via both the bus tour and online, on their views of mental-health services and delivery methods. This information formed the basis of two academic papers (presented at the American Psychological Association's annual conference in August 2014) exploring the gap between the services that are available and the services young people actually want and are willing to use.

Though valuable, this research can only get us so far. So third, Born This Way Foundation, with input from the diverse teens who make up its Youth Advisory Board, has begun to implement these findings into real resources that young people find accessible and effective. Through its website and social media, they are connecting youth with resources both in their communities and online that young people find valuable and easy to use -- meeting them where they are instead of forcing outdated and unused service delivery methods on them.

As detailed in the recently released report "Past & Present: A Report on Impact and Our Strategic Vision for the Future," Born This Way Foundation is gearing up to tackle these issues with a renewed focus on social and emotional learning and mental wellness. Increasingly, academics, educators, parents, and providers understand that young people's overall well-being is intricately connected to their ability to cope and thrive socially and emotionally. Over the next year Born This Way Foundation will continue to offer innovative approaches that promote these skills and provide young people with support where, when, and how they need it.

There are barriers here that must be overcome. For instance, many states' youth mental-health policies limit online or text-messaging help. Thus, advocating for more-efficient service delivery methods (i.e., telehealth, text lines, and online support) across the world must be the next frontier for any organization hoping to truly impact the social and emotional well-being of our youth.

No one action by any one organization or person will make the world kinder or braver. But Born This Way Foundation is determined to work with young people to start making a difference, where and when they need it.

Susan Swearer, Ph.D., is currently the chair of Born This Way Foundation's Research Advisory Board. She has been a high-school special-education teacher for students with emotional and behavioral disorders and has worked as a licensed professional counselor with children, adolescents, and families in residential treatment, inpatient, and outpatient settings. She is a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and a licensed psychologist in the state of Nebraska, where she was the director of the Nebraska Internship Consortium in Professional Psychology for seven years. She is currently a supervising psychologist in the Counseling and School Psychology Clinic at UNL and the founder of the Empowerment Initiative.