Q&A: JED’s New Senior Vice President, Tony Walker, Highlights the Role of Educators in Youth Mental Health

The Jed Foundation (JED) is pleased to welcome Tony Walker, PhD, LPC-S, as its new Senior Vice President, Academic Programs. Tony will be helping JED grow, scale, and fortify its high school and campus programs while increasing the reach of its Comprehensive Approach. He will report to Rebecca Benghiat, President & COO.

We talked to Tony about his new role and the motivation behind his work. 

Q: What attracted you to The Jed Foundation?

A: I was drawn to JED’s vision that “every high school and college has a comprehensive system that supports student emotional health and reduces the risks of substance misuse and suicide.”

As a former K-12 education executive who designed and led school mental health programs, I know from personal experience what it means to sit in the chair and make the tough decisions about student mental health programs. The realities of the job often include running from crisis to crisis and putting out fires, so there is seldom time to research what new student support programs should be implemented, the evidence behind them, or how to even get started.

In this way, I know that The Jed Foundation plays a critical role for educators and education leaders. By gleaning the best evidence-based school mental health practices and compiling them into one comprehensive model, and then supporting schools through the implementation process with expert consultation, JED improves outcomes for countless students across the country.

Q: What inspired you to enter the mental health field and work specifically with young people?

A: My passion for this work began with the challenges that I faced in my own home environment as a child. My immediate family was rocked when my father fell hard into a serious substance use addiction. He never recovered, and the impacts of losing him to this illness rippled across my family for decades, changing us all in different ways. 

We all have a story. In my case, I was fortunate to have an incredible support network, including teachers and school counselors, who leaned in to understand the challenges I was facing and make sure I was OK. In our current education system, not all students are so lucky.

Later, as a high school teacher, I witnessed again the importance of student support services. After having a student tell me he had recently broken into a house to steal food for his family, I knew it was time to leave the classroom to champion a different message: Students cannot prioritize academic achievement when their basic needs are unmet, and mental health care is a basic need.

Since then, I have dedicated my professional career to changing the status quo and leveraging schools, as hubs and hearts of a community, to provide increased wraparound support to students and equip school leaders with the knowledge to design and effectively implement these critical systems of care.

Q: How do you think your past experiences working with students will guide you in this new role?

A: As a career educator, education leader, and licensed mental health professional, I know firsthand what it means to support students day in and day out, both in the classroom and at the district leadership level. I understand the challenges that educators and education leaders are currently facing, and what it means to walk a mile in their shoes. I plan to take those experiences, coupled with my knowledge of developing and leading best-in-class school mental health programs, to ensure that JED is meeting educators, families, and students where they are, in ways that are easily accessible, and that result in short- and long-term positive impacts.

This student-focused approach means that nearly every decision we make as a team should be filtered through the lens of how it impacts our key stakeholders: students, and the educators and leaders responsible for building comprehensive support for them. 

Q: What do you believe are the most pressing mental health issues young adults encounter today?

A: I can only share what keeps me up at night, and that is the continued rise in suicidal ideation and rates of depression among young people, especially in our marginalized communities. Knowing that even prior to the pandemic, nearly 28% of students ages 12 to 17 were living with one or more mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral problems, but that only half of those same students were receiving adequate treatment, is staggering. We are currently facing a national mental health crisis, and the sense of urgency has only increased.

Leveraging our schools and higher education institutions through opportunities, such as JED’s cutting-edge comprehensive programming–which includes access to mental health care, suicide prevention, and mental health promotion–are key ingredients in the long-term national solution to meet this critical need.

Q: Are there any initiatives you are particularly interested in pursuing at JED? 

A: JED already has well-established and well-respected models of programming. An initial priority for me will be looking at points of connection, intersection, and distinction among our various bodies of work, and working with the team to discern what, if any, enhancements can be made in terms of making this material increasingly more user friendly and accessible to all stakeholders. Our nation’s education system is depending on us to quickly scale and spread the JED model to help meet the critical needs that we face. We will rise to the occasion, and along that journey, it will also be important to ensure we are measuring outcomes in ways that prove effectiveness. It is an exciting and important time at JED, and I am looking forward to supporting the entire team over the days and months ahead. 

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.