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Anastasia Vlasova – Gen Z Mental Health Advocate Anastasia Vlasova – Gen Z Mental Health Advocate
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Anastasia Vlasova – Gen Z Mental Health Advocate

About Anastasia Vlasova 

**TRIGGER WARNING. This episode contains conversations about suicide, eating disorders, other mental health issues. If you are triggered or would like to talk to a confidential advocate, please dial the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. If you want to learn more about mental health and find possible resources, please visit this Ruderman Family Foundation link.

 Anastasia Vlasova was a rising tennis star and social media influencer when she started to develop an eating disorder. As an immigrant from Russia, Anastasia experienced a lot of stigma surrounding mental health from her family. After receiving some misguided advice from a school counselor, Anastasia realized how many adults don’t know how to talk to kids about mental health. She started sharing her experiences with anxiety and her eating disorder, and after being chosen as the keynote speaker at Our Minds Matter’s Annual Ball, Anastasia realized the power of storytelling. Since then, she has teamed up with This is My Brave, a nonprofit that uses performances to combat the stigma against mental health to help others share their stories. Today, Anastasia is an NYU student and host of the podcast Our Turn to Talk. She is also the subject of a documentary of the same name from Principal Pictures, being released this fall.

 

Listen to the latest episode of All About Change, as Anastasia discusses the pitfalls of social media, how parents can better support their kids, and stories of young people who are changing the mental health conversation.

You can learn more about Our Turn to Talk the podcast and documentary here.

TRANSCRIPTION

Anastasia Vlasova: There was sunshine, there was happiness, there were good things ahead in life for him. And I just wondered, like what could we have done differently to have kept him here? 

Jay Ruderman:  Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to All About Change: a podcast, showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.

This is all wrong. I say put mental health first because… I stand before you, not as an expert, but as a concerned citizen. 

Jay Ruderman: In each episode, we bring you in depth and intimate conversations about activism, courage, and change. Today on our show, Anastasia Vlasova, a mental health advocate, podcast host, and student at NYU who is on a mission to save lives through storytelling. Anastasia first started to garner national attention when she was chosen to be the Keynote Speaker at Our Minds Matter’s Annual Ball. 

Anastasia Vlasova Our Minds Matter Speech: The mood swings the lack of laughter, the darkness I viewed the world with. The hate I treated myself with. 

Anastasia Vlasova Our Turn to Talk VO: I remember just feeling such incredible relief after that. It was like nothing I’d ever felt before. 

Jay Ruderman: Sharing her experiences with anxiety and an eating disorder introduced her to the radical power of storytelling and she wanted to help others tell theirs. 

Anastasia Vlasova:  I could only imagine how claustrophobic and just. Unaccepted, she must have felt for so long because her community just simply would not welcome her. I just wanted to amplify her story to hopefully reach another young person who might be going through a similar thing.

Jay Ruderman: She then started an internship at This Is My Brave, a nonprofit that uses performances to combat the stigma against mental health. While working there, Anastasia ran This Is My Brave’s Instagram account, designed mental health webinars, and co-produced This Is My Brave’s first National Teen Show. Now a student at NYU, she has embarked on an even larger project with This Is My Brave… 

Anastasia Vlasova Our Turn to Talk VO: Hi, I am Anastasia Vlasova. I am 19 and a freshman in college and this is Our Turn to Talk. 

Jay Ruderman: Our Turn to Talk is a film, podcast, and impact project created by teens for teens.  It captures real teen mental health journeys to break stigma and create sustained action to address the teen mental health crisis.

Anastasia Vlasova: The more vulnerable aspects of a person’s life, you know, and you hear about, and you see them sharing publicly, the more courage it gives you to embrace all that you’ve been through and also begin or continue sharing your own story and just accepting yourself and not fearing judgment from other people.

Jay Ruderman: before we dive in, a *TRIGGER WARNING. This episode contains conversations about suicide, eating disorders, other mental health issues. If you are triggered or would like to talk to a confidential advocate, please dial the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. If you want to learn more about mental health and find possible resources, you can check out some links we posted in the episode description. 

 

Jay Ruderman: Anastasia, it is a pleasure to meet you and have you on all about change. 

Anastasia Vlasova: Thank you for having me. 

Jay Ruderman: You immigrated to the United States from Russia at the age of five, you were intensely involved in competitive tennis and used social media to show your success in tennis, but then, you know, it, it evolved into having serious implications on your life. So maybe you can talk a little bit about your personal story and, and how you became aware of your own mental health issues.

Anastasia Vlasova: I grew up in a household where the mindset was, “Oh, get over it. It’s all in your head. You’re making it up. Just persevere through.” And I think that all got to me in middle school because one, you know, your body’s changing physically, emotionally. On top of that, I had that Instagram account where I was starting to get super obsessed with the numbers and the likes and the followers. And also I was exposed to the highly unregulated, like side of Instagram, where there were fitness influencers and nutritionists who weren’t necessarily qualified to be giving advice, especially to like a 13, 14 year old who’s on Instagram and their body is changing and they don’t know anything about food or fitness really. And they were just like taking the advice to these people who decide to publicly share that information. And so the culmination of all of these things and also like family issues were happening where my sister was going off to college, so I was kind of the only one in a household that could be toxic at times and caused me a lot of mental distress and just the culmination of all of that resulted in severe anxiety, um, generalized anxiety and also social anxiety, just because I was so scared of what people thought of me. And I always wanted to be perceived as, um, like perfect basically, and someone who had it all together, hence my interest in Instagram and the fact that you can like really curate your life on there and be in total control of how people see you. I also developed an eating disorder because of my time on Instagram and just how deeply influenced I was by all of the, the health misinformation, and just like contradicting information that was out there. 

Jay Ruderman: What do you think now? Social media: good thing or a bad thing for young people?

Anastasia Vlasova: I just think it’s really dangerous to have access to something on a daily, if not hourly basis, which is like what social media is. The average teenager, American teenager spends I think around seven hours and like 44 minutes a day, like strictly on social media or some craziest statistic like that.

And it blows my mind because these are some of the most critical years of our lives and they can really be pivotal in terms of either helping you go in a positive or negative trajectory. And it affects our motivation when it comes to academics and to sports and to relationships. And I just think that we’re missing out on so much learning and life and love and laughter and all of the stuff that makes real life so exciting and rewarding by spending. Excessive time on screens. And I personally just think it’s, it’s not so great. So I’m gonna go with, I think social media’s bad and you shouldn’t have it. And so you’re much older and you kind of have that self-control and you have a really strong foundation developed for your life so that you know what your values are.

You have real friends and real life. You have the social skills to connect with people in real life. You’ve, you’ve gotten to a point in life where social media can’t have a strong of a hold on you as it would, if you join it at the time, you’re 13, you know, because we’re so vulnerable and changing. And our self-confidence is like wavering and social media companies capitalize on the fact that our self-worth is quite low and we kind of don’t know our place in the world yet.

And that’s what they use to keep reeling us in, you know, social media knows how to kick us when we’re down. And I experienced that first hand when I was going through my eating disorder. And it’s almost as though the algorithm recognized the days or moments in which maybe I binged or restricted and knew which content to feed me to keep me in, you know, and it was…it’s just like scary how much, how much they know and how much control they have over us.

Jay Ruderman: Yeah. I mean, I think you bring up a really, you know, some really good points, you know, as a parent, we’re not really aware of the impact that it’s having on our children. And, and I agree with you. I think they are spending many, many hours on it, checking people out and seeing people as they want to be portrayed, but not necessarily as they are normally. 

Based on your experience of talking to so many families, what’s the best way that they can respond to a child who’s going through mental health issues and what shouldn’t they be doing?

Anastasia Vlasova: I think parents have the tendency to jump into problem-solving mode because obviously they care about their kid and they just want to fix the problem basically. But while they’re brainstorming all of these solutions that makes the child feel a little bit neglected or unheard in terms of, Hey, my parents, aren’t really listening to what I’m going through.

They’re not absorbing, what’s actually happening to me and they’re not listening. They’re just trying to fix it as fast as possible. Sometimes literally just sitting down with your kid, listening and being in the same vicinity as them, and maybe giving them a hug or pieing them on their back or just sitting side by side, I think just surrounding them with your own presence and your energy is something that will make a greater impact than jumping straight into problem-solving mode. And another thing that I was talking to a parent about was try being, getting creative with how you interact with your kid. For example, I know some kids can be kind of closed off to their parents, but it’s like very clear to the parent that their child is going through something because for whatever reason, their behavior has changed. Maybe try writing your Le, your child, um, a letter about how you’re concerned.

And you’d like to help them, or maybe try going on a walk with them and talking to them about it. Or maybe try going on a car ride where you don’t have to make direct eye contact and chatting about things that have happened in your child’s life recently. Or just doing something other than asking, Hey, how was your day?

Or like, are you okay? Or are you this, you know, cuz these, those questions I think can easily turn people off from being very vulnerable and transparent. Um, just because they’re intimidating questions, you know, when a parent that maybe you’re not super close with or you’re used to being super intimate with asks you, Hey, how are you feeling?

That’s a really big question. That’s associated with a lot of big feelings. So maybe try making it less scary for your kid, by doing those things. Like I mentioned before, writing a letter, playing a game, doing something a little bit more chill that kind of eases your child into eventually sharing fully what they’re going through.

Jay Ruderman: Yeah. That’s such great advice. As a parent of four teenagers, the first response is, like, what can I do to help them? And as you said, that’s not always gonna come across in the best way. How were you able to, to deal with the issues that you were facing? 

Anastasia Vlasova: Probably therapy because I think for so long, because I’d kept so many of my emotions suppressed and I had this thing with perfectionism and not wanting other people to perceive me negatively. I really only shared my quote-unquote problems with immediate family members like my mom and my sister and my closest friends. And even with them, I didn’t really talk about it that much. So I think it was super healthy for me to finally seek professional help and someone outside of my social circle, you know, who could provide me a different perspective and look at what I was going through in an unbiased way.

And a lot of people say that they, it just makes them uncomfortable thinking about sharing such vulnerable details of their life with a complete stranger, but the way that I look at therapy is just an hour every week or every two weeks, whatever your schedule is to simply work on yourself and get to know yourself better and become a little bit more comfortable with the changes that you’re going through and the imperfections and all of that.

Cause I think it’s important to get to know yourself because the more you know yourself, the better able you are to set boundaries, attract people into your life that are good for you, speak up for yourself, and help yourself ultimately. And I think also getting off of social media, I mean, oh my God, did my anxiety reduce or decrease when I got off of social media. I was just able to focus on myself with social media because we’re on it constantly. We’re so used to instant gratification and just things that come quickly to us. We don’t have that grit that it takes to implement activities that will be, that will result in like long-term satisfaction.

So I think getting off of social media and teaching myself how to invest in the long term really helped with my mental health. 

Jay Ruderman: That’s such an important insight. And I think it’s something that, you know, so many people, um, really don’t understand at this point. This is My Brave was started by Jennifer Marshall, who came out about being bipolar and started an organization that essentially was a public forum at live events for people to get up and talk about their own mental health challenges.

So I know you’re very involved with, with the organization. Maybe you can say a few words about the organization and the impact that it’s had. 

Anastasia Vlasova: That organization has changed my life because it was the first, my first experience advocating for mental health, and they really helped me embrace my own mental illness story.

But I think what’s so amazing about them is that they foster this culture of utmost inclusivity and they help you accept yourself because the whole point of This is My Brave and their shows is to just have people who have gone through experience that they’ve concealed for so long, share it publicly in front of hundreds of people.

And it just seems kind of radical in that way, because in what other environment are you told to, you know, talk about that time in your life when you were super duper depressed and hated your life and all of that? There’s something super hopeful about that because I think that storytelling is part of the healing experience.

And This is My Brave helps people heal themselves by allowing them to share their stories and to reach a better point in their life. And they’ve started these different mental health teen initiatives as well. They launched their first This is My Brave teen national show a couple of years ago. I honestly can’t remember which year exactly, because it all blurs together during pandemic times, but I helped co-produce that and see, 8 or 10, uh, young people who shared their stories through that. And that was really inspiring too. Again, cuz we grew up in this culture where especially being on social media from the time that we were 13, we were immersed in this culture of perfection and curation. And, in these shows, we see people be super vulnerable and basically showcase their imperfections.

And I think that was really powerful and kind of was a contrast to the culture that exists nowadays among young people. 

Jay Ruderman: You have a, a very unique quality of being able to relate to people and interview them in a way that that makes them feel very comfortable and makes them able to tell their story. How does someone who dealt with anxiety and panic attacks become such a public figure? 

Anastasia Vlasova: I was talking to one of my friends about this yesterday. We were talking about what our top three values are and, honestly, one of mine is probably social skills because I realized, for so long, I had wanted to do everything by myself. And I think part of that was the, the mindset of the household that I was raised in. And it was kind of like the Russian Soviet, like, you gotta do everything yourself.

Like no help. All of that. And I got to a point where I realized my potential only my, my potential as an individual only went so far. But it got even more amplified when I asked for help. And when I had like a village supporting me. So, I just became really motivated despite my social anxiety to learn how to connect with people, because I realized that relationships are really like the key to happiness and success in life.

At least in my opinion. And people just add so much more fulfillment to every experience that you have. I mean, when you’re able to connect with someone on a deep level, it’s just so incredibly rewarding and you feel a little bit more confident. You feel a little bit hopeful and optimistic and just things become more enjoyable when you know how to connect with people.

And so I wanted to use this podcast as an opportunity to practice those social skills and overcome that social anxiety and learn how to make people feel comfortable so that they can show all of them and, and, and be okay and accepting towards themselves while in conversation with me, because, I think, you know, going through my own social anxiety and self-criticism and constant perfectionism, I realized how difficult it is when you’re constantly judging yourself, especially in social interactions.

And I just never wanted anyone that I was talking to feel that way and to feel that I was judging them in, in any sort of capacity. And so I learned how to navigate all that and apparently make people feel comfortable enough to share these most vulnerable parts of themselves. 

Jay Ruderman: I want to ask you, you once said that, um, your generation gen Z will be the first generation to put yourself first. Can you explain what you meant by that and why mental health has taken such a, a prominent place, um, within your generation?

Anastasia Vlasova: It’s not like we’re the first ones to recognize that so many things are wrong with the world. I think that we’re the first ones to really voice our concern and also demand change and refuse to put up. These astronomical standards and awful working conditions that have been set for centuries basically. That’s our way of putting ourselves first is by learning or is by thinking, okay, how do we build a world in which we can live sustainably and, and in a balanced way in which we don’t overwork ourselves to the point of burnout and in a way where we approach one another empathetically and how do we just nurture healthy relationships among in one another.

Jay Ruderman: I wanna talk to you a little bit about our turn, to talk about the podcast. There’s gonna be a film coming out in this year, I believe, in 2022. When you talked to the family of Dylan Buckner, who was a young man who died by suicide, what was that like? How difficult was it to go and, and to interview people who went through a very horrific time in their lives?

Anastasia Vlasova: It was really tough specifically with Dylan’s family because Dylan was someone who I resonated a lot with. You know, he was high achieving, always got straight A’s. And so we shared a lot of similarities and our lives obviously turned out very differently. And it was very emotionally difficult to, to hear about his story and all that led up to eventually him taking his life.

And, all I could think about was if only he had held on, and if only he had a little bit more hope that kept him going and, and pushed him through that difficult time. Because, as cheesy as the saying is there always is a light at the end of the tunnel. And it was just so sad because, even though I never personally knew him, I could see that there was, there was sunshine, there was happiness, there were good things ahead in life for him. And I just wondered, like what could we have done differently to have kept him here? 

Jay Ruderman: It’s so powerful when you have these discussions, because you’re not just interviewing the young person who is dealing with issues of, of mental health, but you’re talking to their families and sometimes their friends. I remember Ryver. A young person who’s trans in North Carolina and the emotion that the parents were experiencing of how to deal with it, how they were dealing with it. It was just really, really powerful. And, and, and what was it like for you? I mean, cuz you’re not just talking to them over zoom or, or whatever, you’re, you’re showing up at their house and you’re, you’re meeting them. You’re spending time with them. 

Anastasia Vlasova: Yeah, I mean, with Ryver it was cool because I had met her prior to our, in-person interview on Instagram and we had chatted back and forth and I think did like an Instagram live or something together. And so I kind of knew her already. And it was cool that I got to hang out with her for basically, I think it was three days in between interviews and just get to know what her life is really like on a day-to-day basis and connect with her as a friend, not just like an interview subject, you know, um, and see her as more than just her mental illness story.

I think that’s something that’s really important too, in doing this podcast. And this documentary is understanding that these kids aren’t defined by the mental illnesses that they had. There are people who just happened to go through things that were really difficult and emotionally exhausting 

Ryver:  So when I first came out to my dad he was not supportive at all. Um, he would call me things like, you know, faggot, fairy. Like, like we would always get into like fights, and would like yell and scream. And then we started getting into fist fights. And I remember the cops ended up being called twice. You know we were always fighting, always arguing. You know it just didn’t end the greatest. 

Anastasia Vlasova: She grew up in this conservative town in North Carolina, which was very unaccepting of her situation as a young trans person. I mean, I think it was very eye-opening and it just made me a lot more aware of the different circumstances in which people are raised and how  just the physical environment impacts the way a person becomes.

I think it made me reflect on my own privilege of having grown up in a rather liberal town in a really nice part of Northern Virginia/DC area and having access to schools with people that were a lot more inclusive than perhaps the ones in her school situation. And it just made me aware that even though we were all in the same country, even on the same coast, within like, in living in bordering states, the circumstances are just so different and it made me want to to continue doing this advocacy work to hopefully spread our message of inclusivity and acceptance and vulnerability nationwide. So that more, more kids could hear stories that would give them hope, because I could only imagine how like claustrophobic and just unaccepted, she must have felt for so long because her community just simply would not welcome her and just how isolating that is. I just wanted to amplify her story to hopefully reach another young person who might be going through a similar thing, um, and be inspired and, and, and, and given some optimism, given. Her story ended in, in success and eventually finding her footing and embracing her identity.

Jay Ruderman: Right. And I should note that you speak to people from very diverse backgrounds. Like the other one that I struck that struck me is when you spoke with young elder in, in, in Baltimore and, and the trauma that her community has gone through through a number of deaths of, uh, African Americans and, and, and the trauma that the community is suffering. And again, you showed up in Baltimore in her neighborhood and you spoke to her and you spoke to people around her. It’s quite impressive that you really take a very hands on approach to telling these stories. 

Anastasia Vlasova: Thank you. I appreciate it. I think the diversity of them was what was so fascinating and like Young Elder she is just. She’s an amazingly, she’s an amazing activist herself and is just so articulate in such a creative way. She does wrapping too and poetry and just the way she speaks is just so poetic. 

Young Elder: I am extremely excited and extremely honored to be here, but this act is long overdue. Trauma has been an issue in our city for years. See, there is a lot of love in Baltimore city, but with all of the trauma, it makes it really really hard to find the love. So, that’s why we have all of these incredible healers on this team, so we can dig deep. And we can find the love in our city. 

Anastasia Vlasova: It was stimulating in an audio way, just hearing how she spoke and conveyed her message and just how engaged she made everyone around her.

I remember when we were in Baltimore, she was speaking, um, at this podium, it was like being filmed for the news for the local news channel. And she went up and totally improved everything. And I was blown away because that was probably the most, one of the most like life-changing speeches I’d ever heard. And I just remember standing there, like for even forgetting that I was filming a documentary, I think it was raining.

I had like an umbrella and I’m like with my mouth just open. Cause I was like, how is she? Like, what is brewing inside of her head that’s allowing her to just speak so beautifully, um, and inspiring like, like, like, like this. So yeah, I mean they should have freaking hosted the podcast, not me cuz they just are such fantastic speakers.

Jay Ruderman: I just wanna ask about stigma and mental health because I think that that’s something that’s still, even though we’ve made some progress, that’s still very prevalent out there. That once you come out and talk about mental health and what you’re going through, that you’re going to be stigmatized. And, and how should people deal with that?

Anastasia Vlasova: You almost like stigmatize yourself to the point where you don’t even like, speak up about your problems or like what’s happening in your head. And in terms of that, just this advice is not even advice. It just seems so straightforward, but just, just do it. like, like follow, follow Nike’s advice and just do it, you know?

Cause it’s only when you do it, you realize that, oh, that actually wasn’t as big of a, of a deal as I made it out to be in my head and oh, people actually aren’t like isolating or like bullying me for talking about this stuff. And if you can’t talk about it first, maybe try journaling it or like try writing it down and handing that, that little note to your friend and like have them read it, you know, in whatever capacity you can tell your story do it.

Jay Ruderman: You have said in the past that storytelling saves lives. Can you tell us why it’s so important for people to share their stories of mental?

Anastasia Vlasova: One of the reasons why I got involved with this is my brave in the very beginning was because their whole mission was to storytell, specifically storytell in terms of mental illness experiences. And I thought that this was very effective in helping people heal because hearing other people be so vulnerable and so open about the things that they have kept suppressed and hidden for so long because of shame or whatever. I think it gives you the courage to share your own story.

And that’ll inspire someone in the audience to also story tell about their life experiences. It just creates this wave of transparency and utmost vulnerability. And I really think the world needs more of that. 

The more vulnerable aspects of a person’s life, you know, and you hear about, and you see them sharing publicly, the more courage it gives you to embrace all that you’ve been through and also begin or continue sharing your own story and just accepting yourself and not fearing judgment from other people.

Jay Ruderman: Anastasia, that’s such great advice. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you on All About Change, and I wish you to go from strength to strength and I’m sure you’ll have much success in your life. So thank you so much. 

Anastasia Vlasova: Thank you for having me on this was awesome.

Jay VO: All About Change is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital, Jackie Schwartz, Matt Litman and Mijon Zulu.

As always – be sure to come back in two weeks for another inspiring story. In the meantime, you can go check out all of our previous content – live on our feed and linked on our new website – Allaboutchangepodcast.com

Lastly – If you enjoy our show, please help us spread the word. Tell a friend or family member, or consider writing a review on your favorite podcasting app. I’m Jay Ruderman and I’ll catch you next time on “All About Change”.

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