This series features young people who are working towards a better mental health landscape in the U.S., many of whom are involved with Neolth's Student Mental Health Ambassador Program.
Aliza Lopez is a rising high school senior from New Jersey, pursuing the top STEM Academy pathway. With an eye for community development, she takes part in many avenues that merge STEAM, gender and educational equities, and SDGs together: with an aim to create meaningful innovations. With an eye toward solving generational issues, Aliza hopes to increase representation in workforces and multidisciplinary areas — finding that DEI efforts embody these goals well.
As an advocate of the sciences, she currently co-directs the 501(c)(3) organization, Medicine Encompassed; her leadership efforts have designated her as the 2021 T-Mobile Changemaker Challenge Grand Prize Winner in Education and a Lifetime President’s Volunteer Service Award recipient. With her interdisciplinary interests in public health, mental health, medical sociology, and neuroscience, Aliza aspires to become a neurosurgeon (or work in the intersection of health, technology, and entrepreneurship).
She is currently working at a behavioral and data science laboratory at Dartmouth College to analyze various biomarkers, also having completed a project on neurogenetics and biological pathways in the past. Aliza’s work additionally lies in global outreach and Generation Z campaigns, especially as a Copywriter and Consultant at JUV Consulting. After extensive participation in nonprofit organizations and advocacy in communities, she hopes to break the glass ceiling for student involvement and push for impact in these areas. In addition to the medical field, Aliza is interested in the concept of cultural competence, social equity, gender and sex distinctions in healthcare, biostatistical methods, and social determinants of health.
Neolth: Why is mental health important to you?
Aliza: I’ve always considered mental health to be a significant topic because of how universal and interconnected it is with a person’s typical lifestyle, functions, and anything that they bring out. Interestingly enough, it tends to impact a person’s well-being as equally as physical, emotional, and social health, which proves that maintaining this balance is much needed and must be nurtured as much as possible. As something that heavily influences our actions, feelings, and other thoughts, this is strong enough to play a role in how our relationships are formed, the perceptions of others and ourselves, and what (or how) we contribute to what surrounds us.
I like to think that if one aspect of lifestyle (e.g. mental, emotional, physical, social) is not as equal or prioritized as the others, this will eventually exhibit itself in a negative light by putting potential strain on areas that may be overlooked. All sides of healthcare are heavily connected, often depending on the well-being of the other to achieve a balance so a person can effectively flourish. Because finding this common ground is so difficult, many people should realize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach — we aren’t meant to fit into a “standard” lifestyle, but we should learn and be open when growing into one that aligns with our personal best interests and attainable goals.
Neolth: What has your personal experience been with mental health as a high school student? Feel free to include your own experiences or observations of peers.
Aliza: Numerous mental health conditions have plagued rising generations, proven by clinical diagnoses ranking at an all-time high compared to previous years. This issue appears to be linked with numerous causes and factors which makes it difficult to approach the general sphere of mental health at times. As a student, I’ve seen that the educational system, one’s upbringing, relationships with family and others, and social media have shaped mental health development greatly. Teens are the most impressionable demographic, so when we are exposed to these things for long periods of time, the values that they promote tend to become ingrained into our mindsets, influencing our actions, words, and our own self-image.
Social media - especially negative representation or no representation at all - has also shaped students’ perceptions of themselves. With digital filters that alter facial structure and the idea that platforms only highlight the positives in life, feeling unworthy or not acceptable by social standards has resulted in many developing negative views of themselves. Imposter syndrome and comparing achievements or appearance to others has become a serious issue in mental health, causing students to set unattainable standards for themselves. Even from a young age, burnout often stems from overworking oneself to achieve more than one’s capacity, promoted heavily by “grind” and “hustle” culture. Personally, I feel that I’ve experienced these common feelings; however, I try to healthily manage these thoughts and habits by focusing on the positive in these matters.
Neolth: How might you change the school system to better support young people’s mental health?
Aliza: The school system definitely needs to be more considerate of students’ mental health needs and can make major strides to reflect this. Differences in how students may be treated by teachers and the lack of acknowledgment of students’ diverse backgrounds are all factors that I personally think contribute to the inadequate mental health approaches of high schools. There needs to be a more defined line between academic prioritization and valuing a student’s personal life. Students shouldn’t have to feel that their educational responsibilities are impeding the healthy growth of their personal life, and students’ personal matters (e.g. emotional or familial) shouldn’t restrict their academic progress. There needs to be more common ground, which would reduce the social, emotional, and mental pressures that my peers often carry as they navigate through this difficult time in life.
I could see that having mental health days, whether as an option for students or even already set into the school calendar, would give students a chance to decide if they would like to spend their days by either resting, catching up on work that they missed due to a break, spending time with other relationships, etc. Grace periods for deadlines and more effective compromises with teachers could possibly be set in place for students who are facing issues with their mental health.
I feel that any school should take the initiative to have required mental health training for all teachers and administrators, along with toolkits and diverse, inclusive resources. With my township and school specifically — ranking second in student diversity in the entire state — having resources available in different languages would best suit a wide range of student populations.
Neolth: Tell us about Medicine Encompassed! Why did you start this project, what have you learned from it, and what can others learn from it?
Aliza: Whether it’s the fast pace and rigor, its multidisciplinary fields that perfectly combine science and technology towards a greater social good, or its numerous uses towards clinical development, everything that medicine “encompassed” aligned exactly with a hands-on field where my impact was fully tangible. My co-founder and I have stood by the idea that if we could put forward our success from teamwork in our areas of expertise, then a like-minded, global community could achieve this at exponential rates. Medicine Encompassed wasn’t formed from a single event, but by identifying the need for a concrete platform.
A trademark of how “age doesn’t define impact,” Medicine Encompassed is an organization aiming to promote awareness and increase accessibility for prospective STEAM / medical professionals through various interactive mediums. With a multifaceted, international network of like-minded individuals, we strive to create resources and opportunities in these interdisciplinary fields through our 30+ educational initiatives. In a community of 1,500+ students upward, 1,000,000+ global impressions, and our reach in 40+ countries and 45+ states, we have marked our progress in developing Medicine Encompassed’s STEAM-based curricula for our 18+ medical committees (covering comprehensive content from neurology, cardiology, pediatrics, pathology, etc.) and an international mentorship program as a planned collaboration with the Harvard Pre-Medical Society (spanning 4+ continents, with mentors attending prestigious institutions). Our team has worked on resource and toolkit production, literary productions discussing concepts from the student perspective, and science communication efforts. Out of our services, Project Cultivation, our global presentation initiative, is one of our most notable projects executed for large student groups; with themes in STEAM, medicine, and general well-being, we demonstrate the relevance of the health sciences on everyday scales.
It’s significant to realize that health care practices are not only centered on refining the technical skills involved, but it is also a space for soft skills — such as building rapport, empathy, and effective communication — to be developed. With a diverse workforce identified and recruited to maximize the productivity of our international community, DEI efforts are always considered in our next steps and action tasks. Having these varied backgrounds, we’ve noticed, seem to be harmonious when seeing how precisely our skillsets merge under one common goal; a peer-to-peer, “for students, by students” approach is most ideal when producing medical initiatives or educational services that deeply resonate with what our generation demands most. We’ve also hailed that “what you get out of it — is what you put into it,” clearly seen by both the immeasurable community relationships and educational benchmarks. Around the clock, we definitely feel that others can grasp the connection that impact is not only established within our initiatives, but from such diverse interaction, inclusion, and equity itself. We’ve constantly called upon the significance of including these values and wide representation, especially when growing company culture as much as our global impact. Because of this interconnected effort between our members, our workspace doesn’t only convert to a sense of community, but rather, an incubator for work, insights, and student networks.
Neolth: Finally, what is your current favorite way to practice self-care?
Aliza: My favorite way to practice self-care would be to allocate a set time in the day to complete at least one thing that I enjoy doing outside of work — whether it be watching a show or video, playing music, or talking with a friend; reminding yourself about your achievements and what you’re grateful for can also create lengths in establishing more affirmative, positive outlooks.
Though everyone’s practices, routines, and capacities are different, it’s so important to strike the most optimal balance between one’s relationships, workload, and personal life. There is rarely an exception to why you should make health and wellness your top priority. Having this balance through small steps, like taking breaks, can help an individual significantly in learning how to effectively maintain this stability and manage any mental stress in ways that are attuned to their lifestyles.
At Neolth, we’re on a mission to help students stress less, build resilience and become part of our compassionate community. Our app helps students when they're feeling overwhelmed with self-guided content, personalized for their mental health journey. Neolth has a growing community of Student Ambassadors from 170 schools and works with schools to improve access to mental health support for their students. The company has won multiple awards for its app, including the 2020 Startup of the Year EdTech Award and the 2021 Tech for Good Timmy Award, San Francisco finalist. You can learn more atneolth.com