Don’t watch the news too much. The news causes me anxiety because there is rarely good news. I want to be aware of what is going on, so I read the news once a day, but any more than that makes me sad and anxious.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Valerie Grison-Alsop, Founder and Executive Director of Give Us The Floor.
Valerie is an experienced advertising and television executive with an entrepreneurial itch and deep expertise in engaging teenagers. After studying teen behavior, reflecting on her own struggles as a young adult, and helping her daughters through those torturous years, Valerie had an epiphany: teens are uniquely able to help each other deal with distress and reduce stigma. She founded San Francisco-based nonprofit Give Us The Floor in 2015 on this premise. Give Us The Floor’s mission is to create and support a safe, non-judgmental and trustworthy community where teenagers know that whatever challenge they struggle with, they will find peers that have faced or are facing the same challenges — a community where teens encourage each other and understand they’re not alone.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I’m French and I grew up with a single mother in a diverse suburb of Paris. My father is Algerian Muslim and my mother is Catholic. My mother worked minimum wage jobs to support us which had a really big impact on me and ultimately led to the creation of Give Us The Floor. Living in a home with a single mother and knowing that my father was of a different race and religion, I grew up feeling very different from my peers. I was not able to enjoy a lot of what my peers were doing which led me to feel pretty isolated.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?
As I mentioned, I grew up feeling weird and different and could not shake the feeling that I did not belong because I didn’t have a father in my life. Most of my peers had both a mother and father in the picture and my schoolmates had a hard time understanding why I had no father. At some point, I would lie and say that my father was dead, as it was much easier. In addition, my mother was not able to afford for me to go to camps or concerts like my peers which left me feeling pretty isolated and even inferior. I actually carried that all my life until I started therapy. My body was giving me signs that I needed help. I had lower back pain, then terrible stomach aches and eventually, I started having heart issues. While it was not something dangerous, it was definitely not normal. I went to New York and I met a friend who happened to be a therapist, and she told me that sometimes when the brain isn’t listening, the body pumps up the volume.
I realized that the pain in my body had been escalating and I didn’t want to really hurt myself, so I decided to start therapy. In a few months, my aches and pains went away. With this unexpected recovery came a new goal: I didn’t want young people to have to wait until they were 44 years-old to realize that they are worthy and not inferior.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
I moved to the United States to start a for-profit company called StoraLab which engaged teens and tweens in a safe environment. We created an app called “The Best Question Ever” because I believe that the most important things are not answers, but questions. We hoped to encourage young people to ask questions. While raising capital, I met with two investors who looked at me after my pitch and said, “It doesn’t seem like you want to make money. It sounds more like you want to do good.” And they were right.
A Canadian-founded organization called Free The Children (which rebranded to become WE Charity in 2016) held a preview in San Francisco — a big gathering of teenagers — and I was invited. During the preview, I witnessed how teens were helping other young people and how much it was empowering them. It was then that I knew I wanted to help create moments in which teens can help each other and make a difference in each other’s lives.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I’m not sure I have one specific story, but I feel a sense of accomplishment and purpose every time I read a testimonial that says “I think I’m alive because of Give Us The Floor” or “Finally, I have a place where I can be myself and I’m not ashamed of being who I am.”
Most of the Give Us The Floor participants are suffering or have suffered from depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. There’s also a percentage who have been abused or assaulted. It is very hard to share with the people you come into contact with every day the struggles you are facing, as most people are ashamed of them. Through our app, Give Us The Floor provides teen-only supportive group chats that allow teens to share these experiences and be open, unashamed, and feel supported. Being assaulted, for example, often leads to depression. Teens know they’re not alone by sharing their stories. One teen described Give Us The Floor as “kinda like having a net there when you fall, or are falling, to stop the fall or at least slow it down.”
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Barbara Varenhorst, a longtime member of the American Counseling Association, an important contributor to the field of school counseling, the creator of teen peer support programs, and the author of Training Peer Helpers: Coaching Youth to Communicate, Solve Problems, and Make Decisions, gave me a lot of helpful insight from her experiences. It was a great endorsement when she accepted an honorary board position with Give Us The Floor and it was heartbreaking for me when she passed away in February.
Harriet Wolfe is also an honorary board member and president of the International Psychoanalytical Association. She believed in what we were doing right from the start and has shared so much of her experiences to really help Give Us the Floor.
And of course, my daughters, who were teenagers when we started, have been my inspiration daily. Not only have they been fully supportive, but have been and continue to be very active in different roles over the years, including serving on our Youth Advisory Board.
Lastly, a special thank you to my husband, who not only calls me a “teen whisperer,” but has always believed that I could successfully create this online safety net for teens.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
I think that when you have a mental illness, many people think that you’re not normal and the way they look at you makes you feel inferior. It becomes very hard to share, even with people who are close to you. In our society, we are raised with the idea that we have to be strong and we have to carry on. My mother never wanted me to complain because I always had food on the table and a roof over my head. And I think we still carry the burden that somehow if you have a mental issue you should get over it by yourself.
It wasn’t that long ago that people really started to understand that it’s more complicated than that, and that our brains are wired certain ways and you can’t just get over depression. You can’t just snap out of it. We live in this age where people have to be powerful and when you have a mental illness and struggle, you are seen as weak.
In your experience, what should a) individuals, b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
As individuals, we should accept each other and make it clear that it’s okay and completely acceptable to struggle with mental health. It’s not just the government and society’s responsibility. When we see people who are struggling, we need to reach out as individuals and invite them for a walk or to dinner — little things that make them feel a part of the community and less isolated.
Within our society we need to create more awareness about mental health. I believe this is starting to change, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. We are still in the reaction mode, and we aren’t thinking much about prevention.
One of the reasons I created Give Us The Floor is that we know mental illnesses, like depression, emerge during adolescence. Brain science explains why adolescence is a vulnerable period. This period has a high level of brain plasticity (the other being the first few years of life) when the brain is more vulnerable to psychological harms like stress, trauma, or physical damages, such as drugs or environmental toxins.
Brain plasticity also provides a great opportunity for our interventions to have substantial and enduring effects. The brain will never again be as “malleable” as it is during adolescence, so let’s not miss the chance we have, as adults, to positively impact subsequent generations and the future of the world.
What are 5 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Sleep. I listened to Arianna Huffington speak about sleep at The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. That was my first awareness about how important sleep is. I need eight to nine hours a day, which is a lot, but I realize that if I sleep the right amount, I’m far more productive, effective, and make fewer mistakes. I even take naps sometimes if I’m tired from being in front of the computer.
- Eat a balanced diet. I’ve always been very careful with what I eat.
- Ride my horses. I split my time between San Francisco and New Mexico, and I try to ride as often as I can. I take the time to do it because it makes a difference in my mental health.
- Walk 30 minutes a day.
- Don’t watch the news too much. The news causes me anxiety because there is rarely good news. I want to be aware of what is going on, so I read the news once a day, but any more than that makes me sad and anxious.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
- Training Peer Helpers: Coaching Youth to Communicate, Solve Problems, and Make Decisions by Barbara Varenhorst. Not only was Barbara a dear friend, mentor and inspiration, but her work was instrumental in the development of Give Us The Floor.
- The Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg. My favorite quote from this book is “Adolescence is probably the last real opportunity we have to put individuals on a healthy pathway and to expect our interventions to have substantial and enduring effects.”
- Greater Good Magazine (UC Berkeley). This magazine has very well-written, informative, and inspirational articles.
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Each and every person has something to give, and each person has a responsibility to contribute whatever they have. Lily Tomlin said it best: “‘Somebody should do something about that.’ Then I realized I am somebody.” If you have an idea to solve a problem, there’s nothing stopping you.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!