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Nobel Conference at Gustavus focuses on mental health inequity for young people

The conference takes place Wednesday and Thursday at the campus in St. Peter and online via Zoom. Organizers say this year’s speakers include a range of scientists and academics who look at their work — and the world that influences it — through a lens that challenges mainstream ways of thinking.

The Nobel Conference was conceived to focus on science and its ethical implications.
The Nobel Conference was conceived to focus on science and its ethical implications.
Courtesy of Gustavus Adolphus College

Lisa Heldke and her colleagues at Gustavus Adolphus College have been talking about how to address mental health inequity among young people long before people started commenting on the timeliness of this year’s Nobel Conference.

“Everybody is giving us credit for being on top of the trend right now, but when we started talking about it, we had no idea how topical this topic was going to be,” said Heldke, who is a philosophy professor and the conference’s director. The conference, “Mental Health (In)equity and Young People,” takes place Wednesday and Thursday at the campus in St. Peter and online via Zoom.

Discussions about the topic as a potential conference theme began in 2016 or 2017 with a focus on autism spectrum disorder, she explained, but by 2019 it had morphed into a focus on mental health challenges for young people. 

“We didn’t need a pandemic in order for this topic to be relevant,” she said. 

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Nobel Conference organizers have always focused on inviting carefully selected speakers to come to campus and share their research. Heldke said this year’s lineup includes a range of scientists and academics who look at their work — and the world that influences it — through a lens that challenges mainstream ways of thinking. 

Lisa Heldke
Lisa Heldke
“It was important to the organizers that there be a focus on identity, technology and trauma,” she said. “They were looking for presenters who would be able to speak to the multiple facets of young people’s identity, that can get at a particular struggle in the present moment of race, ethnicity, color, gender, sexuality and class. It was really important for them that there be speakers who had that as a focus of their research.” 

Heldke, a Gustie herself (she graduated in 1982), recalls spending hours at the Nobel Conference every year when she was an undergraduate. 

“I was one of those nerdy students who went to every lecture,” she said. “This was back when the speakers would lecture for an hour, and hour and a half, without visual aids. This was before TED Talks, when scientists lectured to the public without knowing that science was something people needed help to understand.” 

The conference, which was conceived to focus on science and its ethical implications, has changed over the decades, and Heldke said she wants help shape it to speak to a wider audience. For many years, the conference closed with a philosopher or theologian who put the other presentations in context for the audience. Under Heldke’s leadership, that tradition has shifted. 

“When I took the helm, I made sure there isn’t one philosopher speaking at the end of the day,” she said. “We invite every speaker to grapple with the intersection between science and ethics. It’s not like the scientists get to do their science thing then the philosopher or the theologian comes in and says, ‘This is how to think about this.’ We wanted to take a different approach.” 

This change, Heldke said, helps the event “live out in a more full-throated way, the way the it was chartered to be. Science and ethics are always challenging each other, sometimes daunting, goading and sometimes agitating each other. I think we need to put that at the center of the conference.” 

New ways of seeing

This year’s speakers represent a range of scholarship and approaches to understanding the issue of young people’s mental health, Heldke said. They are award-winning, widely published and recognized as experts in their fields of study. 

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As important, or maybe more so, Heldke said that student involvement has reached a level she’s never seen during her time at the college. 

“Every year we invite students to serve as hosts to the speakers. They get to hang around with them for a few days. We usually have half as many applicants as spots. But this year we had to turn away more people than we could accept,” she said. The campus community seems particularly excited about the event, she added:  “Word of mouth among the students is, ‘Oh yeah. I’m going.’” 

Manuela Barreto, a social psychologist and head of the psychology department at the University of Exeter, is co-investigator on The Loneliness Experiment, a collaboration between the BBC, the Wellcome Collection and researchers at three British universities that took an in-depth look at rising levels of loneliness and its causes around the world. She is one of this year’s conference’s seven presenters.

Barreto said that when she talks about her research, people often assume that older people are the most lonely. But that isn’t true. 

Manuela Barreto
Manuela Barreto
“The thought that loneliness is a property of old age is completely misguided,” Barreto said. “Culturally, the people who are the most lonely are young people.” She explained that her multiyear research combined with the findings of other academics revealed that, “People between the age of 16-35 are more lonely than most age groups.” 

Barreto said she is frustrated by social psychology literature that focuses on individual deficits as a reason for loneliness.  “Too many studies theorize that loneliness is due to a lack of inclination to get out or a lack of motivation to be sociable. There are actually all sorts of other factors that help us to understand the root causes of loneliness.” 

In her presentation, Barreto said that she will confront the issue of rising rates of loneliness among young people from a perspective that challenges accepted belief systems.

“What are the more structural causes of loneliness?” she asked. “What is actually pushing people aside and preventing them from having meaningful social connections? As a social psychologist, my focus is on the environment where the mental health or loneliness comes from. Those aspects are often neglected but are still important.” 

She explained that she sees loneliness as a deficit within communities rather than within individuals. Many young people who say they feel lonely are members of marginalized groups that have been pushed to the edges of society. “That’s why my talk has the tongue-in-cheek title, ‘It Takes a Village to Make Someone Lonely,’” she said. “Because usually villages or communities are defied by lines that define those who are in and those who are out or excluded. I claim that loneliness is a social justice issue.” 

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Other presenters include: 

  • Meryl Alper, associate professor of communication studies, Northeastern University:  “Supporting Mental Health Among Autistic Youth in the Digital Age” 
  • Daniel Eisenberg, professor, health policy and management, Fielding School of Public Health, UCLA: “Investing in Youth Mental Health at a Population Scale”
  • Joseph P. Gone, faculty director, Native American Program and professor of anthropology, global health, and social medicine, Harvard University: “Anticolonial Approaches to Community Mental Health Services for American Indians: Enacting AlterNative Psy-ence”
  • Priscilla Lui,  associate professor of psychology, Southern Methodist University: “Scientific Understanding of Racism and Discrimination Experiences: A Path Toward Mental Health Equity”
  • G. Nic Rider, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota: “Radical Healing and Inclusive Change-Making: Centering Transgender and Gender Diverse Communities”
  • Brendesha Tynes, Dean’s Professor of Educational Equity and professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California–Rossier School of Education: “A Day in the Online Lives of Black Adolescents and What It Tells Us About Mental Health Equity”

Tickets are still available for the in-person conference on Gustavus’ St. Peter campus, but Heldke said she encourages people to order tickets in advance. Virtual attendance is free, and all presentations will be recorded and archived. 

The archive option dramatically helps expand the speakers’ reach, Heldke added, something she thinks is particularly important with this topic.

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“If you are a high school teacher, you will be able to use it almost the next day in your class. We also have sources for high school teachers who want to incorporate the talks into their lesson plans,” she said. “This topic is especially important to young people, and we want them to be able to have access.”