Joseph Sexton is one of two winners who will receive this year’s Student Voice of Mental Health Award. Now in its 15th year, the award recognizes students for their outstanding efforts to raise awareness for mental health issues, reduce prejudice around mental illness, and encourage help-seeking among their peers. Recipients are given a $3,000 scholarship and will join The Jed Foundation’s annual gala on June 7. Joseph is a rising senior at Vanderbilt University with three majors: cognitive science, mathematics, and medicine, health, and society.
At Vanderbilt, Joseph leads the Mental Health Reform Group and founded the Vanderbilt Critical Psychiatry Conference, a student-led initiative on the politics of mental health that drew an inaugural audience of over 200 clinicians, academics, and activists. Joseph serves on the Policy Committee for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Tennessee and volunteers for Mental Health America, which recognized him as Volunteer of the Year for the Midsouth. He is also a member of the Young Mental Health Leadership Council. He is passionate about the future of mental health care and thinks young people deserve a seat at the table as it evolves.
We talked with Joseph to learn more about his research and advocacy work in mental health care and suicide prevention.
Q: What is the Vanderbilt Mental Health Reform Group? What prompted you to create it?
A: The Vanderbilt Mental Health Reform Group is a student group that meets biweekly to discuss structural and political issues in mental health care. There are [other] student organizations that do the important work of reducing stigma on campus; but many issues in mental health are also traceable to problems in policy, ethics, and history.
The structure of meetings varies, but we usually have a presentation on a topical issue, like involuntary hospitalization, the continued effects of racism in psychiatry, and the Hearing Voices Movement. Many times, these talks are led by professors or local activists. After this, we will have individual and group discussions about the topic. Time is also spent contacting local legislators about relevant issues, for example effective 988 implementation, as advised by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Our greatest event this last year was the Vanderbilt Critical Psychiatry Conference in January 2022, bringing together over 200 clinicians, academics, and activists for discussion on reform.
My goal in creating this group was to demonstrate that mental health advocacy can and should be reconsidered by young people as a movement with political and social demands, more than just one of breaking stigma. It is imperative that we make sure people are comfortable talking about mental illness, but I want to make sure we are wondering why so many people are mentally ill in the first place and how to best challenge this.
Q: Why do you think it’s important that young people have a seat at the table when mental health policy is being discussed?
A: I think a key step in advancing mental health advocacy is bringing people together from diverse perspectives, fields, and industries. Our guidelines, whether for the state or the clinician, will be best when they integrate the voices of psychiatrists, therapists, policy analysts, and maybe most importantly people with lived experience.
This is especially true with regard to young people. The fact of the matter is that the social and political landscape of the world has shifted rapidly in recent decades, to the point where many challenges faced by young people today are totally foreign to many decision-makers. For one poignant example, as legislators look to form new approaches to the growing influence of social media sites, they might frame it in several ways: It could be a question of state control over private companies, free speech, or maximizing profits. Yet, if you ask a high schooler or college student how TikTok influences their everyday life, you might learn that they are utterly addicted, or how desensitized they are to violence and discrimination, or how it lets them connect with people that share their identity. I think these kinds of observations are often unique to the people experiencing them. Policy is better when it directly integrates the ideas of the people it impacts.
Q: In high school, you tragically lost a friend to suicide. How did that experience shape the work that you do today?
A: It was definitely a difficult and painful time for my entire community. My immediate reaction wasn’t especially uncommon among young people who lose friends this way: I was aggravated. Logan was a victim of bullying, so I felt like there were “perpetrators” in his death. Slowly, though, I realized this wasn’t true. The cause for any given person’s suicide can’t be reduced to a single event, much less a single person.
Instead, I realized that suicide occurs only in context. There are political, social, and at some level biological influences that allow for people to die by suicide. Tragically, this makes it seriously difficult to understand and challenge suicide. I found science as a place of respite and healing with the idea that, the more I could improve our understanding of suicide, the better I could prevent further harm in others.
Eventually, I realized that it isn’t [also] right to reduce suicide to a science: Either we have done a lot of research on this topic, but without translation into good policy and practice, we are limited. So, now I integrate both research and activism into my work. In the future, I would love to go into academia while also providing aid to organizations I believe in, like the Tourette Association of America—Logan had Tourette Syndrome, as do I—the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Mental Health America.
Q: You have a triple major. How do you balance your intense course load, your leadership roles on campus, and your research projects, while also making time for your mental health?
A: Well, I definitely don’t want to give off the illusion that it has been perfectly smooth sailing: It hasn’t been, and there have been times where I was incredibly overextended, working in far too many roles at once. At regular times in the semester, I try to sit down with myself and seriously question what is and isn’t worth investing my time in. What missions do I really believe in and want to devote myself to?
I ended up dropping some obligations, reserving time for self-care. For me, that looks like a bit more time enjoying a hot shower, taking a longer walk than usual, journaling, or reading outside for no reason but my own pleasure. It also means more time just laying around and being unproductive (at least in the conventional sense). I also see a therapist weekly, which has been really helpful for understanding my emotions and recognizing when I might need additional help from loved ones. Finally, I always try to keep up with loved ones with regular phone calls; having family and friends as constants in my life is a blessing that I never take for granted!
Q: How can other young people who are interested in suicide prevention get involved?
A: There are a lot of ways! The great thing about suicide prevention, especially today, is that you can go about it in so many ways. You can really integrate activism into any passion of yours. Artists might include depictions of mental illness in their work, which offers validation and understanding to viewers. Back in high school, I was a big science fair nerd, and I focused my projects on the psychology and neuroscience of depression, which also allowed me to grow closer to trusted teachers and, eventually, I even got to do lab work at a local college.
In terms of policy, your legislators may very well be receptive to emails! Organizations like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provide templates that make it easy to contact your elected officials about relevant policy issues. You might think this is unimportant, but when a bill is considered, it can make a serious difference for your legislator if they have heard from their constituents about the topic at hand.
[In fact,] my greatest piece of advice is to just send emails, even when you aren’t expecting a reply. Academics (for research or collaboration otherwise) and especially representatives for your local mental health organizations are often more responsive and excited to hear from young people than you might expect. You won’t get a response every time, but the times you do can make all the difference. I’ve had some cold emails lead to genuinely transformational partnerships that I believe are effecting change and saving lives. Have faith in yourself and just keep giving it your best shot!