Jared Fenton of The Reflect Organization: “Please keep self-care in mind”

While social media, so often, is not a force for good, I believe it can be. For instance, Reflect uses our social media as a force for inspiration and positivity, helping people engage with our core values of authenticity, allyship, self-love, and student empowerment. As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things […]

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While social media, so often, is not a force for good, I believe it can be. For instance, Reflect uses our social media as a force for inspiration and positivity, helping people engage with our core values of authenticity, allyship, self-love, and student empowerment.

As a part of my interview series about the ‘5 Things We Can Each Do Help Solve The Loneliness Epidemic’ I had the pleasure to interview Jared Fenton, Founder and Executive Director of The Reflect Organization.

Jared Fenton is Founder and Executive Director of The Reflect Organization, a national mental wellness nonprofit (501c3) with college and university chapters, dedicated to empowering students to foster a culture of authenticity, self-love, and allyship on campus.

Reflect was founded at University of Pennsylvania in 2015 by executive director Jared Fenton, who produced the first-ever mixed-methods research examining the phenomenon of “Penn Face,” which refers to the “mask of effortless perfection” students at the University of Pennsylvania felt the need to wear day-to-day, hiding true feelings such as loneliness, unhappiness, and isolation, proving incredibly debilitating and harmful to their mental wellness. After teaming up with some of the foremost experts on mental health in the country to launch Reflect at the University of Pennsylvania (aka “Penn Reflect”), the organization expanded to launch chapters at colleges and universities across the country.

In the years since inception, Reflect has collaborated with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation and the American Association of Suicidology’s Public Health Committee (helping to lead its working group for Equity in Suicide Prevention Resources). Reflect also created a Resource and Activity Guide to help students cope during the COVID-19 crisis, which the NCAA Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee ordered for distribution to over 170,000 Division I athletes in the country. Reflect has also run training sessions on Penn Face, Imposter Syndrome, Active Listening, and Supportive Intervention for myriad organizations, including the University of Pennsylvania, in order to better support students’ mental wellness.

Jared has been honored by numerous mental health organizations for his work in the field, and was awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award by Barack Obama. He’s also been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Stuff You Should Know Podcast, and spoken as a panelist for discussions about Gen Z wellness, focusing on social media. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, with a BA in Political Science and a certificate from the Civic Scholars Program for Social Action and Civic Engagement.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us? What was it that led you to your eventual career choice?

From a young age, I always was interested in wellness. This interest started with regard to physical wellness (I remember my excitement about helping teach gym class at my high school), and as I got older, my interest in mental wellness grew. It was with this burgeoning interest in mental wellness that I went off to college.

Not knowing too many people at my school, I decided I would get lunch with a person who was sitting alone every day. I noticed that while these students were open to my getting lunch with them, they were not open about who they were and what they actually were feeling. Day after day, each new student seemed to be living a “perfect” life.

Halfway through my first year in school, a classmate of mine, named Maddy Holleran, died by suicide. After Maddy’s death, Kate Fagan came out with a story called “Split Image”, alluding to the discrepancy between the “perfect” image of Maddy portrayed to the outside world and the real image of Maddy. At the end of my first year of school, I found one of my friends in crisis. Thankfully, this friend is alive and well today.

It was after these experiences that I said to myself, “Okay, I have to do something to support college students’ mental wellness. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I’m going to research it until I figure it out.” I carried out the first mixed-methods research into an aspect of college student mental wellness called “Penn Face,” and, ultimately, I used my understanding from that research to found a national mental wellness nonprofit called The Reflect Organization.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

A common theme running through my discussions with college administrators is their desire to foster innovators; they want their institutions to forge the next generation of people who will change the world.

Yet, in my view, the ability of students to be innovators is hampered by a campus culture of loneliness, isolation, and masking. Sticking out in my mind is a group of artists who always would attend our programs. Even though these artists had ideas in their minds, which, literally, the world had never before seen, they shared with me that prior to our programs, they felt they had to keep these ideas buried on the inside in order to fit in.

Today’s colleges are packed with students who have ideas that could change the world. Is it not a shame when these students, instead of becoming empowered and inspired, feel pressured to abandon their innovative ideas, put on masks of effortless perfection, and suffer silently? I believe it is.

But it does not have to be this way. I believe that by working collaboratively to empower students to break down the standard which says, “you should be this” and replace it with the message that “you should be you,” we can usher in a new chapter of cultivating wellness on campus and promoting innovation like we never before have seen.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on a number of such projects, especially given the impact of the pandemic on student wellness. Even before the pandemic, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among college-aged students (ACHA), and the CDC reports that since March, 25% of 18- to 24-year-olds have had serious thoughts of suicide.

In response to this, and in alignment with the broad-based transition to virtual, Reflect has expanded our services to hundreds of thousands of new students through online peer-support gatherings, trainings, workshops, resource provision, messaging campaigns, internships, and more. As we look toward the future, the virtual programming we have put into place will continue to operate as our physical programs become operational once more, thereby enabling our organization to serve students more accessibly and more effectively than ever before.

Can you share with our readers a bit why you are an authority about the topic of the Loneliness Epidemic?

In addition to serving as executive director of a mental wellness nonprofit organization that has spent years focused on the issue of college student loneliness, I produced the first mixed-methods research on an aspect of college student mental wellness related to student loneliness called “Penn Face.” This research has since been extended and served as a basis for national policy recommendations regarding creating campus environments that promote flourishing. Furthermore, Reflect has the privilege of being directed and advised by some of the top minds in mental wellness in the country. The level of expertise we bring to our work is intentional and a point of pride for our organization.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. According to this story in Forbes, loneliness is becoming an increasing health threat not just in the US , but across the world. Can you articulate for our readers 3 reasons why being lonely and isolated can harm one’s health?

There is cause for concern about the impact of loneliness and isolation on the health of individuals and society, especially during this time when many are confined to their residences. The Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that “social isolation has been found to be as harmful to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and people who are socially isolated or lonely face higher risk of hospitalization; depression, anxiety and suicide; heart failure and stroke; dementia; and even premature death.”

Through positive connectedness, we can foster a society that builds resilience, helps to break cycles of adversity, celebrates the unique value in each person, and encourages people to support each other, pursue their passions, and be proud to be their true selves. The key to unlocking this society is addressing the loneliness and isolation that are so present today.

The irony of having a loneliness epidemic is glaring. We are living in a time where more people are connected to each other than ever before in history. Our technology has the power to connect billions of people in one network, in a way that was never possible. Yet despite this, so many people are lonely. Why is this? Can you share 3 of the main reasons why we are facing a loneliness epidemic today? Please give a story or an example for each.

I think it is notable that in the early days of Facebook, your timeline, the place where you are supposed to share your authentic self with the world, was called your “wall.” Even though social media exists, theoretically, to connect us, it so often divides, discourages, and isolates people, as comparison and competition runs rampant.

In our research, a number of students pointed to a culture of competition and comparison as a driver of loneliness. We referenced Penn Face earlier, which goes by different names at different institutions. At a West Coast institution, students have written about the “Duck Syndrome,” the phenomenon of appearing graceful on the surface like a duck, while, in actuality, one is struggling to stay afloat. At one southern institution, students have coined “The Undertow,” alluding to a force beneath the surface, unseen by others, which is dragging them down. Students are meticulously curating their outside images, attempting to meet an impossible ideal while left feeling like imposters in their own skin. Penn Face, Duck Syndrome, and The Undertow even have been described as the “academic incarnation” of the social media campaign #WokeUpLikeThis. This campaign featured pictures of individuals claiming to have woken up in the conditions the pictures showed, yet, upon further investigation, many of these photos were revealed to have been staged.

While social media, so often, is not a force for good, I believe it can be. For instance, Reflect uses our social media as a force for inspiration and positivity, helping people engage with our core values of authenticity, allyship, self-love, and student empowerment.

Ok. it is not enough to talk about problems without offering possible solutions. In your experience, what are the 5 things each of us can do to help solve the Loneliness Epidemic. Please give a story or an example for each.

Core to our work at Reflect is a concept, coming to us from a member of our Advisory Board named Dr. Ken Ginsburg, called “one caring person.” This concept states that if you can be nonjudgmental, a dependable presence, and believe in another to be their best self, then you can help a person to build resilience and break cycles of adversity.

I would urge people, as they are able, to be this one caring person for one or more people. Anyone can be this one caring person, and there are no specific words you have to say. It is just about trying your best; it is about how you make another person feel.

Importantly, if you are going to be this one caring person, please keep self-care in mind. Not only does everyone deserve self-care, but also, if you hope to help others effectively, it is essential that, like on an airplane, you “secure your own oxygen mask” first.

For a deeper view into the concept of one caring person and a great example of this concept put into practice, I encourage people, as they are able, to check out the documentary Paper Tigers. (In the film, they use the term “one caring adult.”)

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would inspire a movement toward living defined by allyship, authenticity, self-love, and empowerment. I would encourage people to care for themselves and endeavor to be that one caring person for each other. Such a movement, literally, could change lives, save lives, and transform society. It is this movement that our organization works to help spark.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would welcome the opportunity to have breakfast or lunch with Chuck Feeney, who recently finished donating his entire 8B dollars fortune to charity. Chuck has transformed philanthropy and impacted multitudes. I would be grateful for the opportunity to learn from him.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Thanks for asking. As I mentioned before, at Reflect, we are intentional in using social media as a force for inspiration and positivity, helping people engage with our core values of authenticity, allyship, self-love, and student empowerment. You can engage with us below!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thereflectorg

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thereflectorg

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/the-reflect-organization

Thank you so much for these insights. This was so inspiring, and so important!

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