After personal tragedy, two Yalies launch mental health initiative
Bryce Bjork ’20 and Ting Gao ’20 created the Brain Health Bootcamp website in order to increase access to mental health education.
Brain Health Bootcamp
Two Yale alums began building Brain Health Bootcamp, a platform for mental health education for teenagers, in winter 2021 after almost two years of research. Nearly a year since then, the program is set to launch in two schools in Massachusetts in late October.
Brain Health Bootcamp is an immersive program featuring videos, infographics and quizzes that aim to increase accessibility to mental health resources and education. Ting Gao ’20 and Bryce Bjork ’20 designed the program with professor of medicine and Director of the Yale Center for Health & Learning Games Lynn E. Fiellin as their mentor. They were both inspired to create the Bootcamp after Bjork’s brother Chase committed suicide at age 18 in January 2020. The website launched in September.
“Like many families, we were unprepared for Chase’s mental illness,” Bjork wrote in an email to the News. “Even in our well-educated Massachusetts community, there was very limited education on mental illness. After Chase died, we were shocked by how many friends and neighbors opened up about their own familial struggles. We realized that this issue is incredibly pervasive and yet heavily censored by stigma.”
Gao was also heavily impacted by Chase’s death. She told the News that she grew up in an immigrant family, and even though her own brother battled addiction and bipolar disorder, her family never talked about mental health.
“When Chase took his own life, I was shocked that someone who was so kind and outwardly happy had been struggling so hard,” Gao wrote to the News. “When I heard about his suicide, I was floored. I felt like for the first time, I registered the gravity of mental health conditions.”
After Chase’s death, the Chase-Bjork foundation was founded in early 2021, but it took almost a year for them to start building Brain Health Bootcamp due to the extensive research required. Gao told the News that all of the content was curated using vetted sources such as the CDC. Fiellin helped review the content, and she told the News that she made sure it was approachable, understandable and rooted in “strong scientific evidence.”
“[The bootcamp content] should be easy to understand and use language that helps to destigmatize it,” Fiellin wrote. “Words matter and that is especially true when discussing brain health. Ting and Bryce have gone to great lengths in choosing the most appropriate and positive words and images that they included in the BHB.”
Fiellin is also the director of the play2PREVENT Lab at Yale. She told the News that her work in the lab has given her experience in developing interventions to positively affect the well-being of teenagers.
The play2PREVENT lab develops video games for “behavior change, education, health, wellness and social intelligence” in teenagers, and their most recent game, PlaySMART focuses on opioid misuse in teens with a heavy emphasis on mental health.
“I have seen the value of going directly to teens to help them learn how to live happier and healthier lives and I think this same approach applies to the BHB,” Fiellin told the News.
Bjork said that due to the stigma around mental health, they chose the wording of “brain health” to reframe mental health and emphasize that mental health conditions are physical and treatable.
Bjork added that they chose to focus on mental health awareness and education for teenagers because of how mental illness overwhelmingly begins during adolescence. According to Bjork, about three-fourths of lifetime mental illness begins in adolescence, and only about half of adolescents with a diagnosable condition seek treatment.
The website itself is self-administered, so anyone can take the bootcamp. Gao told the News that it is customized for the partner schools, but it is easy to implement since school administrators can share the link with students.
In the coming weeks, the Bootcamp is launching in two pilot schools in Massachusetts. Gao told the News that the schools are doing staggered rollouts, one class at a time, in late October and early November. According to Gao, Chase attended the two schools.
Gao said that the two have received positive feedback so far, and students, teachers and parents are able to increase their knowledge about mental health and become more comfortable with seeking help and discussing the bootcamp’s issues.
Looking towards the future, Gao and Bjork both told the News that they want to help every school adopt the Bootcamp. Fiellin told the News that she thinks Brain Health Bootcamp has the potential to grow exponentially.
“There is a great need for evidence-based, clear and youth-centered content to be provided to teens in schools in a non-judgmental and de-stigmatizing fashion,” Fiellin said. “This program is engaging and easy to use and scale. I think it has great promise and teens, their families and schools are in dire need of it.”
Brain Health Bootcamp is currently hiring for program content creation, school outreach and implementation support and communications.