When Ashley Edwards was director of operations for a charter school in Newark, New Jersey, students would often stop by her office to chat. As they became more comfortable, they revealed their day-to-day challenges, like frequently having nothing to eat or seeing someone mugged on their way to school.

“Ninety percent of the students lived in poverty,” Edwards said. “They didn’t even realize how they had been traumatized.” This struck Edwards on a personal level, since her father had been a student in the same area decades before and he had once witnessed a murder as he walked to school. “The problem was the same after all those years,” Edwards said.

When Edwards met Alina Lao in graduate school at Stanford University, she found a kindred spirit who wanted to reduce the stigma around mental health in communities of color and ensure kids in those communities had the emotional and psychological support they needed. Together, they took a course on launching a startup, and tinkered with different ideas until they came up with MindRight, an innovative program in which teens receive support and a friendly ear from coaches they communicate with via text. Beginning with a small pilot in 2016, they recruited volunteers who were assigned to check in with teens they were paired with. This gives the teens the chance to discuss issues they don’t feel comfortable sharing with family or friends, and can be anything from a breakup with a boyfriend to encountering violence. A licensed clinician monitors each exchange and steps in if, say, a student says they feel suicidal and more support is needed.

“So many teens felt they had no one to talk to,” Edwards said. “We give them a safe and confidential space where they won’t be judged.”

Whole Journey of Emotions

Unlike a crisis hotline, which de-escalates a tense moment, MindRight takes part in the teen’s “whole journey of emotions,” Edwards said. “We are here for the teens before, during, and after the crisis. We’re not going anywhere.” Indeed, in some cases MindRight has been the one constant connection in the teens’ lives. “We have one teen who changed schools, became homeless, and went in and out of shelters, so he had no traditional continuity of support,” Edwards said. “Through it all, we were there for him, giving him someone to talk with.”

Currently, the program has 50 volunteer coaches, who undergo background checks and receive 20 hours of training. Some 400 teens are enrolled in the program, which is now offered through schools in Philadelphia, Newark, and Washington, D.C. The conversations can be short or last hours, depending on what’s on the teens’ minds that day.

In a June survey, more than 70 percent of teens that used MindRight said it made them feel more understood. Another testament to the program’s success is that 99 percent of the texts from coaches are opened.

“When we started, a lot of people wondered if the kids would really text that much with a coach, and they questioned whether you can have an impact sending text messages,” Edwards said. “But this is the way teens communicate today.” She believes school districts could use the anonymous data of the conversations to understand the issues that need to be addressed with students. “Right now, schools are held accountable for students’ grades and attendance,” she said. “We would like them to be accountable for creating a culture that contributes to the students 'happiness.”

Edwards has many more ambitious plans, and she is finding partners to help improve the lives of teens. Mindright was selected for AT&T Aspire Accelerator, a four-to-six month program designed to support promising education technology startups. “The accelerator program helped to open us to the power of authentic corporate partnerships in achieving social good,” Edwards said. “We've learned how we can leverage values-aligned companies like AT&T as true partners in advancing our mission.”