Bringing Mental Health to Middle Schools (And to the Fairway)

Lauren Cikara
Lauren Cikara

When Active Minds received a three-year $3 million grant last year from United Health Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Optum, our team could not have imagined the impact that this partnership would have on the growth of our community. We are proud to announce that thanks to their support, we are bringing our proven peer-to-peer mental health model to middle schools nationwide. To kick this exciting announcement off, Active Minds students met with Optum Ambassadors at The Players Championship this weekend to talk about mental health on the golf course.

Over the course of the past few months, Optum Ambassadors, including PGA player Rory McIllroy and LPGA players Mariah Stackhouse and Jessica Korda, have helped to lead conversations about mental health on a national stage with Active Minds students. They participated in golfing events where they helped shine a spotlight on destigmatizing the conversation about mental health while elevating the need for athletes to take care of their own mental health. This partnership couldn’t have been more well-suited: after all, golf is a game that relies on not only one’s physical ability to hit the ball and walk the golf course, and is also a sport that requires you to be mentally healthy and fit. You must ensure that you are focused, able to strategize your next shot, and be able to continue playing despite not having just hit the perfect shot. Hearing each of these athletes talk about their strategies for supporting their mental health, has been an inspiration for the entire Active Minds community. From the opportunity to meet Rory at The Match last year to being a designated Charity of the Day at The Players Championship this past weekend, the partnership with Optum and the United Health Foundation has opened new avenues for Active Minds to amplify our work to support youth and young adults in mobilizing the culture surrounding mental health. 

Our partnership has thrived over the past month. Before The Players Championship this past weekend, we facilitated a V-A-R® (or Validate, Appreciate, Refer®) workshop at a golf clinic with Mariah Stackhouse and Duval County School District middle and high school students. Read more about the V-A-R workshop here from two of the student participants here. 

During Rory’s practice round on Wednesday, local students, Sophia and Tyson, had the opportunity to walk the 8th hole at TPC Sawgrass and have a conversation with Rory and Mariah about supporting their mental health while playing golf on the world stage. You can hear a bit more about their conversation here. On Saturday, a few other students from the clinic met LPGA player Jessica Korda. They too spent a bit of time talking about the importance of being mentally prepared for golf tournaments, and Jessica encouraged them to stick with the sport,  as it opens many doors on and off the fairway. There is immense pressure on our student athletes to succeed and having professional athletes helping to elevate the conversation about mental health is a win for all, no matter the sport. 

Personally, to witness world class golfers playing at The Players Championship this weekend was something that I could not have dreamed of as someone who started playing golf in high school.  I watched Rory balance on the ledge of the infamous 17th green, cheered Sophia and Tyson on with their friends and families, and walked one of the most famous golf courses in utter awe and appreciation of the opportunity to share the work of Active Minds with golf enthusiasts around me.  

Off the course, our partnership with Optum and the United Health Foundation supports our goal of engaging 1,000 K-12 schools in 1,000 days. As we work to reach this goal, we are excited to pilot our new We Are Active Minds Middle School program in Florida, North Carolina, and Minnesota this fall! This will involve translating our proven peer-to-peer mental health curriculum to support middle school youth so they are better able to be leaders in this work. We Are Active Minds Middle will help increase knowledge and skills while changing attitudes and cultures on mental health in middle schools across the country. Our program is research informed, developmentally appropriate, and celebrates and promotes diversity and inclusion. 

Finally, Active Minds is also excited to launch youth champion workshops designed with K-12 staff and educators, parents and caregivers, and youth development professionals in mind. As youth champions dedicated to creating healthy social, emotional, and academic growth for the youth in their care, we believe it is critically important for them to also have a space dedicated to supporting their own mental health while creating spaces to listen to the needs of youth and provide them with the tools they need to lead the conversation about mental health. To learn more, visit our website.

Active Minds is excited to grow our K-12 programs as we expand into middle schools, and to support youth and young adults in a way that centers the voices of all youth as we give them the chance to lead and learn from one another when it comes to mental health. We are incredibly thankful to Optum and the United Health Foundation for being such a strong partner in this work with us.