FloraMind Co-Founder Danny Tsoi on Teenage and Children Mental Health Support and Inspiration from the Hip-Hop Education Movement

Co-founder & COO of FloraMind, Danny Tsoi
Danny Tsoi of FloraMind
Name: Danny Tsoi 
Title:  Chief Operating Officer, Co-founder of FloraMind
Based in: New York City
Age: 29

1. In your words, describe who you are. 

I am a social entrepreneur, infinite learner, and champion for human potential. I look for opportunities to impact the world through intersecting the world of technology, policy, and social change. Figuring out the most important leverage points for social impact and developing solutions is my passion. I enjoy nature, traveling, and learning how we can all play a role towards shaping a society that works for all of us.

2. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one (i.e., morning routines or evening rituals). What are some actions you take to keep yourself well (mentally, spiritually, and emotionally)? 

Much of my routine is focused on calming exercises and finding ways to reorient focus during the day.

Shortly after waking up, I will practice Transcendental Meditation in the morning. I try to make sure I grab breakfast and coffee to set myself up for energy to tackle the rest of the day. In the afternoon or evening, I walk for about 30 minutes to clear my head and to get the creative juices flowing.

One of the most important things is having a system to check in with yourself regarding your needs and wants to be your best self. To feel well, it is important to be able to take and step back to assess yourself about your thoughts and emotions and to be able to review what works or doesn’t work. I often check in on my energy levels and try to manage my energy throughout the day. When it’s low, taking a nap or a break between meetings is important and necessary for being productive. Making sure I stay hydrated, fed, and energized has been important for me to enter my flow state of mind where creativity, focus, and productivity is amplified.

Thinking about your body as something that requires maintenance is a very effective way to approach wellness. We can manage stress better if we prioritize our body’s maintenance frequently, rather than reacting only when we feel burnout. I keep a journal to keep track of habits that work, to reflect on previous thoughts and actions, and to jot down anxious thoughts. To prioritize self-care, I put self-care activities in my calendar to make sure it is not forgotten with a heavy work schedule.

3. How has your career in corporate IT and/or personal trajectory led you to where you are with Floramind?

The healthcare system is one of the most complicated systems to understand. I have been frustrated about the various barriers that many people face when seeking healthcare services since I was young. While supporting my family, I saw how problematic the lack of culturally responsive healthcare practices can be for the patient experience. The various challenges faced by my Chinese immigrant family is not unique, other minorities also struggle with getting the services they need.

My previous background before entrepreneurship has been focused on information technology and operations. After working in different spaces such as the US Marines and Richemont, I realized that I want to focus on social impact projects. Rather than solving for network connectivity issues, now I look for the existing causes for inequity and deficiencies of services, such as healthcare. Working in those different roles shaped me to develop systems thinking for problem solving social issues. 

My first social venture was dawaCare. We focus on improving the patient experience for hospitals in Cameroon. We discovered that healthcare improvement efforts in many developing countries have been focused on increasing capacity by building more hospitals and hiring more staff.  Through interviews, we learned about the lack of follow-up care in these hospitals and decided to use that as a leverage point to improve patient outcomes. We worked on increasing the return for appointments for a Cameroonian hospital in 2017. This outcome is specifically important for patients that have malaria, TB, and typhoid, which without proper follow-up and medication may result in death. We had a simple solution – hiring locally-trained nurses, using text messages and phone calls to contact patients, and providing health tips alongside the reminders for appointments and medication.

This first foray in learning how to make an impact towards healthcare inspired me to look at other health systems. Learning more about how the healthcare system works in the US, I became driven to understand what can be done to close the gap for mental healthcare. FloraMind is essentially a manifestation of personal struggle for me, as well as my co-founders. Youth mental health is something we directly have a connection to due to our own mental health journey during our youth. My experience designing products and operations is now applied at FloraMind to develop prevention and early-intervention approaches for youth mental health using education. I work with mental health and education experts to develop our curriculum and training. We focus on resilience skills, reducing social stigma for seeking help, and cultural relevance to make the content relatable to young people.

4. FloraMind is dedicated to youth in providing mental health education. We’ve discussed the need for personalization in businesses and solutions that work in mental health literacy and support initiatives based off of demographic with a previous guest on ATEM Life, Kevin Dedner. Why did you choose to grow FloraMind with an eye at youth?

As a mental health advocate, I work on addressing one of the biggest problems our society is facing. In our opinion, it is not just about closing the gap of treatment by increasing accessibility. Instead, having culturally relevant practices that support intersectionality is needed. This means making sure that services are developed for the lived experience that different people have in order to have better outcomes. For mental health, youth are a group that has insufficient support for mental health. As teenagers, mental health challenges are often misunderstood as part of typical adolescent development, and as a result are either misdiagnosed or under-reported. When we learned that 50% of mental health conditions begin at age 14, we knew that we had to do something. Not only is it important to work with youth to improve their wellbeing, it can also lead to positive consequences for other factors, such as educational outcomes. When facing depression, youth are twice as likely to drop out of high school, and four times less likely to go to college. 

5.  In your view, what are actions or situations (social, economical) good mental health education can prevent that are current problems? What does a youth focused curriculum that’s different from say, the adult courses, or seniors (ages 65+) on offer from initiatives such as ThriveNYC

Youth, which we define as age 13 – 25, faces unique challenges. Brain development is still not fully completed until age 25, which affects how decisions are made and emotions are managed. Mental health problems are more likely to occur if certain traumatic events happen, such as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and other risk factors, such as housing and food insecurity, and lack of a reliable support network. 

Due to wide breadth circumstances experienced by people, it is important to understand how to have the right approach when working with young people. This means that we have an emphasis on facilitating discussions and talking about things that matter to the young people we work with. One thing that is different from other adult courses, is a strong focus on engagement and giving our audience a safe space to talk about mental health. Our courses are developed as a blend of informational content, discussion, and skill-development.

We use engaging video content, news, sports, pop culture, music such as hip-hop, to initiate conversations with young people. We also teach coping skills that can be used to develop resilience, such as gratitude journaling, mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, and reflection. Our approach also includes working closely with our partners, such as schools and organizations to make sure we meet their needs.  

We are currently working with ThriveNYC on their Spaces To Thrive initiative. The initiative is focused on hosting mental health conversations at New York Public Library branches in areas that have limited access to mental health services. We lead public discussions in several branches in Staten Island, Bronx, and Manhattan, around topics such as social media usage, self-care and self-love, and stress management.

Our curriculum is developed with mental health and education professionals and is closely aligned with policy recommendations for mental health education and social emotional learning. Our emphasis on skill-development and discussion ensures that our audience is not just developing familiarity with concepts, they are able to develop coping strategies and apply skills for self-care. We are also inspired by the hip-hop education movement, and the drive for culturally responsive approaches for getting youth activated.

6. Teach us to  differentiate between identifying normal teenage behavior versus poor mental health in youth years.

Adolescent development during ages 13-18, happens at the same time as many different life choices are made. When teenagers are going through development, their physical body changes with hormones and puberty, social identity is beginning to form, and they start developing a sense of autonomy. This typical development is combined with the need to make certain decisions for themselves such as relationships, potential future career, plans for adulthood, and balancing needs for family, work, education, and self. It is also important to remember that many young people are resilient and able to grow from their struggles.

It is important to know that potential warning signs that indicate mental health challenges can be part of typical development. Typically, young people go through emotional rollercoasters and have to cope with the transitions they experience as they develop into adults. Warning signs should not be used to diagnose someone with a mental illness. Mental health diagnoses can only be made by appropriate clinical professionals.  Some examples of warning signs and symptoms of mental health challenges are social avoidance or withdrawal, disturbed sleep, hopelessness, low energy, body aches or pains, aggression, anxiety, and loss of interest in hobbies and activities.

The ways we talk about the difference between normal adolescent development and poor mental health are impact, severity, and duration. Impact can be described if behaviors are interrupting a person’s ability to to live, laugh, love, and learn. Severity is how much the challenges are causing difficulty in functioning needed for everyday life. Duration is how long the symptoms and problems persist. 

Mental health is a spectrum that ranges from wellness and unwell, in which we can bounce from different states of wellness during times of stress. Many of the warning signs listed earlier may be a result of mood changes or life circumstances. When grouped together with multiple warning signs, high impact, high severity, and persistence for more than two weeks, it indicates that there may be a need for seeking appropriate professional support. 

7. Since FloraMind’s inception, how often and through what initiatives have you engaged with youth? What’s your experience of having the unique vantage point and proximity of getting mental health related feedback from youth and teens?

Since the beginning of FloraMind, we have been focused on delivering in-person experiences for young people to learn about mental health. For the last two years, we have worked with multiple school partners and organizations working with students from middle schools, high schools, and colleges. We are proud to say that we have reached over 1000 young people, led over 65 workshops, and have worked in all 5 boroughs in NYC. We do this through partnerships with school leaders and ThriveNYC to provide our services to increase resilience for young people. We also work with corporate partners, such as Bareburger, to support workshops in schools on nutrition and mental health. We continue to cultivate partnerships with leaders from all sectors to increase our impact.

We believe that youth mental health needs to have inclusive design from young people. We have developed a Youth Advisory Council, in which sessions were held to get feedback from young leaders from diverse backgrounds to understand what needs to change for better youth mental health in NYC. We also worked to advise on policy recommendations for the mental health working group in the Chancellor Student Advisory Council. This working group provided recommendations for the NYC Department of Education to apply changes for mental health initiatives. The students from both groups gave us valuable insight about their concerns and feedback about existing challenges.

8. Letters to My Younger Self:  If you had any advice to give to your younger self, what would it be? 

First, be patient and focus. Have faith in yourself.

Second, recognize that in life there is pain and suffering. Struggle and conflict are the best teachers for how to be strong.

My younger self had a hard time thinking long-term and was very impatient. Being patient is truly a virtue. Patience is very much tied to grit, determination to get things done, and faith in yourself to be able to accomplish your goals. I developed patience later as I learned that the payoff of certain actions, habits, and tasks, may often take longer than expected. Things often don’t go as planned, and patience is the key to staying focused and grounded.

We all experience and deal with struggle and conflict in different ways. To develop resilience and to be antifragile, requires acceptance of those experiences. This quote from an unknown author has inspired me recently, “How thankful I am today, to know that all my past struggles were necessary for me to be where I am now.”  

To think about pain as a transformative tool to evolve and adapt into personal strength is something that I was first exposed to in the US Marines, and it would have been formative advice for my younger self to develop resilience.

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee

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