When she was 11, Goldie Hawn was terrified of the atomic bomb. It was 1956, and she saw a training film in her fifth grade class about the dangers of a Russian nuclear attack, with screaming mothers, and splattered blood and cities in rubble. She was traumatized.
“I called my mom at work and was still shaking as I told her, ‘Mommy, come home quick! We’re all going to die!’,” she told USA TODAY.
After 9/11, the fear returned.
“And I felt that our children were feeling that, too,” she said. “And that’s when, I don’t know something turned, I knit the American flag. That’s the only thing I could do to find some solace. I knit the flag and I cried and I thought, ‘The world is changing forever.’ And what can I do?
“And, you know the, ‘I’ is like really small. I didn’t know what I could do, but I made a promise to myself that whatever I did do to help, if I helped 10 people, that would be enough. And then at the end of the day, MindUP is what was created.”
MindUp for Life is a 15-lesson social and emotional learning program for schools, created by the Goldie Hawn Foundation in partnership with researchers and scientists, that teaches kids about how their brains work and how to develop optimism and resilience. The program now serves children, parents and educators in 47 countries.
Hawn was worried about kids’ mental health 20 years ago. The problem has only exploded since then.
This week, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy sounded the alarm in a column for USA TODAY Opinion.
“Since the pandemic began, anxiety, depression, loneliness and negative emotions and behaviors have increased among young people,” he wrote. “Imagine a high school with 1,000 students. Now imagine about 450 of them saying they are persistently sad or hopeless, 200 saying they’ve seriously considered suicide, and nearly 100 saying they’ve tried to end their own life over the past year. That is the state of youth mental health in America.”
I talked with Hawn about stress and solutions at the Concordia Annual Summit in New York City. Here is some of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
What is going on with kids; why do we need programs like this?
Children are asked to use their brain. They’re never told how to use it. They don’t even know what is in there. They don’t know how to access the various things that basically they can in order to succeed in order to actually feel better, to have a sense of resilience and optimism on some level, or be able to reach down into an area where they know that joy does live inside of them. They have it; they own it. They just have to clear out things so they can feel it.
Guys, don’t turn a blind eye. The most important thing that we have to do, among a few other important things, is teach children how to listen, how to behave, how to feel better, to understand that the brain has plasticity and that we have the ability to be and do the things that we might want to do, because that’s what we’re gonna tell our brain.
With all the pressure teachers are under, how do you persuade them to add one more thing to their classes?
Actually, it is not adding one more thing. It’s creating something that you do because it matters for your well-being in the classroom. I do believe that these programs help educators as well. It really helps everyone create more joy in the classroom, more connectivity. And the research actually showed children were able to work better together. If we could create a community of trust and faith and joy in a classroom, gee, I think they might take it outside. They might learn that that’s a way to get problems solved, you know, rather than hate and pushing and ugliness and name-calling.
What about social media and the impact on kids?
You give children the understanding that what goes into their brain actually comes out, that they have to understand how to self-manage even being online. Now they’re not going to do it without us. The parent has to stand up and say, no, we’re all going offline. We’re going to go offline on Saturday. We’re all gonna do that together. There’s new research out on that, which is: Our parents do still matter. So we can’t give up. On the other hand, there’s a way to discuss what’s going on, which means, “I saw that thing on TikTok. What did you think about that?” It’s not going away. So if it’s not going away, then it has to be embraced. It’s sort of like, you know, keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
I remember when Katie (daughter Kate Hudson) was growing up and Madonna was everything. I didn’t say you can’t watch Madonna. She had a wonderful voice. I just wanted her to know that I was involved in watching Madonna and praising her for her talent. You know, wondering a little bit about her costumes (laughing). So we have to (join in) with our children so we can show what our opinion is. Instead of being judgmental, we can be part of a conversation.
You talk about emotions being contagious, what do you mean by that?
Laughter is contagious. If you hang out with angry people, you’re going to be angry. It’s what our brain does. It’s how it works. You hang out with people who are aggressive, you’ll become aggressive. This is all science and research. So you want to be able to have your children mimic something that’s actually productive. Mimic positivity. Knowing all of these things in terms of how the brain works is why we can create programs to make it stronger, healthier, more resilient.
You can talk about suicidal thoughts and depression. USA TODAY editor shares advice after her mother’s death by suicide.
How has mindfulness impacted your life?
Well, mindfulness actually helped me quite a bit when I was going through my anxiety attacks. I wanted to go home to Maryland and, you know, marry a Jewish dentist and literally just have babies and open a dancing school. That’s what I wanted. It didn’t happen that way. And I had an odd reaction to it. So I did about eight years of psychology and studied my own mind and my own behavior and a lot of my history. But I also think that manifested into writing and meditation. And I remember the first time I did that, it was probably the most extraordinary experience where I was breathing and focusing. Now we know the research behind meditation. It’s very important to your brain, it actually brings a little bit more harmony within your own body.
I mean, I produced, I acted. I tried to remember lines. I did this thing I wrote, I directed. I’ve done a lot of things, very stressful. Sometimes I would go act, and then say, look, I just have to go stare at a wall. And I would, because I had to bring the energy back to me. I mean, life is messy and we have to figure out all the ways that we can help each other and help ourselves.
Why isn’t more known about your advocacy for brain science in schools?
I’ll be honest with you. Goldie Hawn was not going to be anyone anyone would listen to about a program. Sorry, but I wasn’t that person, nobody knew me. Right. So I didn’t get myself involved. I wanted to stay in the background. I did a few interviews. But proving the premise was really important for me because I wasn’t going to go out there with a program that might not have worked or that had an issue. Now we have the data, now we have all the information. We’ve got all of our research now, which is unbelievable, and we’re still doing research.
I brought in schools, doctors and you name it to write this curriculum. It took about 17 months to put together. And now I cannot move on. There’s no script that has made me more interested than in what I’m doing right now. I look at my career as now this. We all have stages in our life, and I wasn’t going be someone that was just gonna wait for the phone to ring. I wanted to do something that mattered. This came to me because it’s part of me. Not much can take me away from it.
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY and president of the Gannett news division. The Backstory offers insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here. Reach Carroll at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter: @nicole_carroll. Thank you for supporting our journalism. Subscribe here.