Gustavus Adolphus College’s 58th annual Nobel Conference is turning its attention toward social and emotional well-being of young people at a time when reported mental health crises have never been more prevalent.
Demographic factors such as age, race, sexual orientation and geography play a role in suicide risk. Indigenous, LGBTQ, rural, veteran and middle-aged populations are among the most likely to commit suicide compared to the general public.
The upcoming Nobel Conference, titled “Mental Health (In)equity and Young People’’ will examine the interplay between identity, social marginalization and technology and their effects on the well-being of young people. On Wednesday, Sept. 28 and Thursday, Sept. 29, the conference will be held in the Gustavus Adolphus College Nobel Hall of Science and livestreamed on the Nobel Conference website.
“There’s never been a Nobel Conference that more directly speaks to our students than this one,” said Lisa Heldke, Nobel Conference director and Gustavus professor of philosophy.
The topic is especially relevant in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Heldke said the conference was in the works before the contagion’s spread. While the pandemic may have exacerbated mental illness in youth, there has been a startling upward trend over the past two decades.
“This topic morphed and changed in ways that are fascinating and a little bit terrifying,” said Heldke. “There isn’t one discovery or one particular challenge, rather there is this complex entanglement of questions, like ‘why is suicide the second leading cause of death for 8-10-year-old children?’”
The professor noted there was a substantial increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression among young people starting in the late 2000’s as cell phones and social media became widely available, but promoting better mental health outcomes isn’t as simple as condemning technology.
“There is no way to simply say, ‘cell phones are the root of all evil, we must move on from them,’ because, at the same time, cell phones have transformed the lives of, for instance, folks on the autism spectrum for whom they are an incredibly powerful tool,” Heldke said.
Nobel Conference lineup
Gustavus has invited eight guest speakers to the Nobel Conference to comment on the interaction between mental health, identity and technology. Each speaker will engage in a panel discussion and audience Q&A following their lecture.
Brendesha Tynes, Dean’s Professor of Equity and Professor of Education and Psychology at the University of Southern California, kicks off the conference with her lecture “Adolescents’ daily race-related experiences and mental health outcomes.” Over the past 20 years, Tynes has researched links between cyberbullying and depression and the prevalence of racial discrimination and portrayals of violence against people of color in online spaces.
Southern Methodist University Associate Professor of Psychology Priscilla Lui will speak on how direct and indirect racial discrimination impacts mental health outcomes in people of color in her talk “Scientific understanding of racism and discrimination experiences: A path toward mental health equity.” In her research, Lui has found that immersing oneself in their culture of origin can lead to better mental health outcomes for ethnic minorities.
Northeastern University Associate Professor of Communications Studies Meryl Alper leads the conference’s second session with her lecture “Supporting Mental Health among Autistic Youth in the Digital Age.” Alper explores both the opportunities for socialization and communication for autistic youth presented by technology as well as the threats to privacy and mental health that come with digital media.
The third session on Thursday morning opens with “It Takes a Village to Make Someone Lonely,” a presentation on current understandings of loneliness by University of Exeter Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology Manuela Barreto. As a co-investigator of the Loneliness Project, Barreto has built on findings that suggest feelings of loneliness are more common in communities than in isolation.
G. Nic Rider, Assistant Professor and Transgender Health Service Program Coordinator at the University of Minnesota Medical School, follows with their lecture “Radical Healing and Inclusive Change-Making: Centering Transgender and Gender Diverse Communities.” Their talk focuses on the social and structural barriers preventing transgender and gender non-conforming youth from receiving adequate healthcare.
In the fourth session, Daniel Eisenberg, Professor in the UCLA Department of Health and Policy Management examines the programs that can best serve youth mental health at a feasible cost in his talk, “Investing in youth mental health at a population scale.”
Finishing off the conference, Harvard Professor of Anthropology and of Global Health and Social Medicine Joseph P. Gone presents an alternative view of mental health challenges among Native Americans living on reservations. His speech, “Anticolonial Approaches to Community Mental Health Services for American Indians: Enacting AlterNative Psy-ence,” primarily attributes the prevalence of substance abuse and distress in reservation life to the trauma of colonization.
From noon to 2 p.m. each day, the Nobel Conference will feature a series of mental health-themed workshops and activities. The workshops explore topics such as art, athletics, gender, race, childhood trauma and their interactions with mental health. Activities to promote mental health resilience such as yoga, reiki, MEISA, mindfulness-based movement and meditation and acupuncture will be presented as well.
Visitors may also tour the newly-renovated Nobel Hall, walk through the Gustavus Arboretum, attend the Hillstrom Museum Gallery and Schaefer Art Gallery receptions and witness “Resonance,” a music, dance and poetry performance by Gustavus students based on the themes of the conference.