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The Change Agent

Dr. Andrew Miki

Chief Science Officer, Starling Minds

The Objective

Using digital platforms to support educators and provide easily accessible therapy.

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Show Notes

Dr. Andrew Miki is the Founder and Chief Science Officer of Starling Minds, and founded the company with the mission to improve access to effective mental healthcare. Dr. Miki has a background in clinical psychology and neuroscience. He continues to practice in addition to leading Starling’s research, strategy, and solutions to address mental health requirements and create validation frameworks to measure each digital program’s efficacy. Dr. Miki holds a B.S. in psychology from Queen’s University, an M.A. in behavioral neuroscience from Wilfrid Laurier, and an M.A. and PhD in clinical psychology from York University.

Host Bio: Dr. Chris Balow is the Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint. Dr. Balow has a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and served for 33 years as an educator in various roles with focuses on literacy, mental health, and the behavioral and emotional growth of students. He has worked the last 6 years in the educational technology field to promote student success on a larger scale.

Season 2 : Episode 8

Title: Supporting Mental Fitness

Subtitle: Using digital platforms to support educators and provide easily accessible therapy.

Voice Over (00:02):

Welcome to the Change Agents in K-12 podcast. Join our host, Dr. Chris Balow, chief academic officer at SchoolMint, as we dive into thought provoking in-depth conversations with top educational leaders. Our goal? The advancement of education and improved outcomes for all students. Listen in, be inspired, and ask yourself, are you ready to be a change agent?

Dr. Chris Balow (00:29):

Welcome to Change Agents in K-12, everybody. I have kind of a different podcast for you today. One that I’m really super excited about. Something I’ve been reading about recently is around teacher stress and burnout and teacher mental health. And it’s becoming a really huge problem in our schools. And today, we have the perfect guest to discuss this: Dr. Andrew Miki. He is the founder and chief science officer of Starling Minds, a digital mental health platform for stress, anxiety, and depression. Andrew founded Starling to improve access to effective mental healthcare for educators. As the chief science officer, he’s responsible for developing digital cognitive behavior therapy programs that power educators to build lifelong mental health skills. They need to lead healthier, happier lives and feel more resilient and confident today. Starling Minds is used by thousands of educators by harnessing technology to personalize support for each educator based on their inherent strengths learning island personality profile. Andrew was a registered psychologist in British Columbia, specializing in neuropsychology and cognitive behavior therapy. He holds a B.S. in psychology from Queens University, an M.A. in behavioral neuroscience from Wilfrid Laurier, and an M.A. and PhD in clinical psychology from York University in Toronto. It’s my distinct pleasure to have Dr. Andrew Miki with us today on the podcast.

Dr. Andrew Miki (02:12):

Thanks, Chris. I’ve been looking forward to this as well. Thanks for having me.

Dr. Chris Balow (02:16):

You’re welcome, and much appreciated. As I said at the outset, this concern I’ve been reading about, there’s been studies and surveys about teachers under tremendous stress and the impacts of that. For example, I read one study that forty percent of U.S. teachers — and I’m assuming it’s similar in Canada — are strongly considering leaving the profession. And associated with that is a brand new study in the U.S. that thirty-eight percent of U.S. school leaders are also considering leaving. So it’s not only teachers but also principals considering leaving. Why do you think so many of these educators are leaving the profession?

Dr. Andrew Miki (03:01):

Ah, that’s a big question. I like the way you start big. I think, like every big question like that, there’s no simple answer. It’s obviously a complex issue, and part of it has roots in the direction things are going in our society. Things are changing a lot. Think about what things were like fifty years ago compared to now. Fifty years ago, the school was an institution and very respected throughout, from the principal through the teachers. And they had a lot of power. What they said was kind of the authority. And I think what’s changed compared to today is that that pendulum has swung more toward parents. Parents have a lot more say now. Parents have a lot more power in a way. And so do the students. If the students complain, it gets teachers and administrators really stressed. So there’s lots of issues around the culture of school, the dynamics around that, and the power within that. I think the complexity of the student population has really changed again. If you go fifty years ago versus now, before, students would be seen as such: there’s good students, there’s bad students, and then there’s problem students. And a lot of those students who may have fallen into one of the other two categories, of being either a bad student or a problem student, I think now we’ve learned maybe they were struggling with a learning disorder, or maybe they had some sort of mental health issue like ADHD or anxiety. And I think one of the challenges that a lot of teachers have now in the classroom is not only the size, because I think that the size is always an easy one ‘cause it’s budgetary, right? The more people we can get in, the cheaper it is. But with the size also comes a greater diversity and the composition of the classroom. And so when I talk to a lot of teachers and educators and you being a psychologist. It’s sort of like running a group treatment for such a diverse group. You’re treating just depression or just anxiety or something like that. I say to the educators, “I don’t know how you guys do this job.” I don’t know how if you’ve got a class of, say, thirty kids, I don’t know how you have ten identified students who really need a lot more support. And then you’ve got maybe twenty other students with their own diversity of behavioral issues and their own anxieties and their own issues, stressors, and home life and things like that. It’s so complex. And so you look at the student population, how that’s changed. The behaviors have changed. Technologies have changed. Smartphones have introduced a whole complexity of problems. Administration has changed a little bit as well. I think a lot of people get attracted to it. I think there’s always been this kind of evolution and in some people’s careers who go into education where they’re happy. They find success in the classroom. And then at a certain point they have this calling to move on. And I often joke with them, I’m like, why would you ever do that? Why would you ever become an administrator? You’re leaving more security and you're leaving the union. You’re moving into this, that yes, you get paid more to a certain degree, but the roles and the responsibilities are just so much greater. And so I joke, why would you do that? But they do it because there’s a calling. They feel this need to affect more people, to scale what they’re doing. But then the demands on them shift as well. It’s an administrative role in its true sense. Like you really have to balance the budget. It’s not that they had to do it before, but it’s so much more important. It’s stressed a lot more and the power of the board in terms of what they want. And I think sometimes how they have the capacity sometimes to micromanage a lot more and not let administrators feel like they have a lot more autonomy. I think that that is changing and putting more pressure on the administrators, and then that puts more pressure on the teachers. And so much of education is so much about relationships and quality of relationships. It starts to erode it, as it does with all of us, as the level stress goes up and as the level of pressure goes up. So I think what’s going on to a certain degree is if there is that erosion of the relationship between admins and teachers and educational support workers and things like that, the more of a divide there is between these two camps. I think a lot of the work that you’ve done as well, like you’ve identified how support from the administrator is so important. I think it’s the same for so many people in the general public, where it’s easier to work in a job where you feel like your manager has your back. If you feel like a manager doesn’t have your back, that’s a very unsettling place to be. And so if you’re a teacher or an educator, and you feel like your admin doesn’t have your back, and there’s all these other complexities and stressors and pressures, you feel like you can’t have an impact. In terms of what we know with animal learning and learned helplessness, we know animals can learn to be hopeless over time. And I think that’s what happens to a lot of educators as well. They feel like they’re in this no-win situation where it doesn’t matter what they do, they can’t affect change. They can’t have the autonomy they want to run the classroom. They want to see the success in their students that they wanna see. I think that is the hardest thing for a lot of them to face and figure out what they’re gonna do around that. And if they feel like they can’t have agency to make those changes, I think that’s why a lot of them are looking to leave the profession.

Dr. Chris Balow (09:14):

Wow. Now that was one comprehensive answer. And I wrote down a list of like ten major variables and factors that you articulated, and any one of these would be a challenge. And certainly a stressor, as a former school psychologist, one of the things you mentioned, student mental health. One study in the U.S. indicated that twenty percent of our K-12 students could have a diagnosable mental health condition. So here I am, as a teacher, and one out of five of my students has a diagnosable condition potentially. How do I help them? And I love the way you brought it all together, where as a teacher, you developed this sense of learned helplessness. And we know from studies that teacher efficacy is just absolutely critical for student outcomes. So if I’m a teacher and I don’t feel like I can be effective, I’m gonna break down more quickly. I’m not gonna maybe try as hard, because I’ve given up to a certain extent, and all of these things are combining, and we’re focusing on the teacher, but it impacts the kids, obviously.

Dr. Andrew Miki (10:40):

Yeah, yeah, it does. And I think COVID has obviously been a game changer for everybody. It’s no doubt affected teachers and the education landscape. I think that one of the things that I find amongst the lot, like, ‘cause I think one of the things that we always have to keep in mind are like, who are these people? Who are the types of people who go into education? Generally, when we talk about personality and the types of people who go into it, the way that I look at it is that, okay, you’ve got the general population, right? So you put all the people in North America head together and then of that group, there’s a select type of person who goes into education. And I believe the type of person who goes into education, they’re generally high in openness. They like to learn about new things. They like to do new things and new experiences. I find they’re also really agreeable, which means that they’re really, really nice people. And I find that of all the professions I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with a lot of different kinds — healthcare is another really big one. I’ve worked with a lot of nurses and people in that area. And by and large, even though they’re both helping professions, I find that educators are just really, really nice people. Now that can be a blessing and encouragement. That’s another topic. Because I think sometimes you can be so nice that it’s difficult to be assertive or it’s difficult to push back sometimes and say no to things and have boundaries. But I think another thing is that it’s really difficult for a lot of teachers because they don’t like to see other people in distress. They don’t like to see their students in distress. They don’t like to see their students in distress because they’re not achieving the goals for the year. And teachers are, in terms of personality, very, very, very conscientious people generally. If you look at the overall population, they are hard workers. And why, because they generally worked hard in primary school, and they did pretty well. Then they go on to university, and what do you learn in university? Well, the harder you work, probably the better you do. And then when you’re struggling to get a job as an early teacher, what do you learn? Well, the more work I put in, the more visible I am, the more the students like me, the more the parents like me, the more likely I’m gonna get a contract. So you have this kind of learning for a long time throughout your career that it’s just like, well, the more you do, the better you’re gonna do. And so I think what ends up happening is that teachers throw in so much of their energy, both their professional and personal energy to do their job, because they’re trying to hold themselves to a high standard. And to them, generally one of the most important things in the classroom is teaching and getting those students to their standard by the end of the year, and they will drive it. So what I think COVID does and what a lot of adversity does is it makes it harder for teachers to drive students to that standard, but they will take their own energy and their own personal energy to drive it harder and harder. But you can’t do that forever. And if you do that for too long, a lot of our research shows that educators often struggle for about seven years before they really tap out in terms of their energy levels, in which case they might take a leave, they might look, and they might leave the profession. So I think they push themselves really hard for the welfare of the students.

Dr. Chris Balow (13:59):

Yeah, exactly. And then exacerbated by COVID, they have to manage their own family and support their own family, too. So it’s coming at them from all angles, it would seem.

Dr. Andrew Miki (14:14):

Yeah, it is. I always joke with a lot of teachers in terms of like they’re humans. They’re people. I remember when my kids were in kindergarten in grade one and we’d see the teacher out in the community, and they’d kind of be shocked. Like, what are you doing at the movie theater? What are you doing at the supermarket? Why aren’t you at school? Don’t you live there? Kind of thing. And so I think sometimes, students and parents, they forget they have their own stressors, they have their own personal lives, they can’t spend twenty-four hours, seven days a week in a school. They have to attend to their own things. And it’s one of those things especially when it comes to mental health. It’s not like it’s usually just one thing. It’s usually one thing in one area and then something pops up in another area. It could start in your professional life, and it pops up in your personal life. Or maybe something blows up in your personal life, and then it affects your professional life. It all kind of feeds off of each other. So yeah, it’s a demanding job.

Dr. Chris Balow (15:13):

Yeah, definitely. Well, backing up a little bit, how did you start working with educators? I know as a psychologist, you’ve worked with lots of different people. Why educators?

Dr. Andrew Miki (15:27):

It was just really in my career, I was working at a clinic. And the receptionist at the time, she said to me, oh, this guy, Jack McNeil, he’s a really good guy. And he works a lot with teachers, so you should take this file. And so I took the file. I got to know Jack. I got to know his company. It’s an occupational rehabilitation company. One thing he’s done really well, he’s had amazing people, who are really good clinicians. I’m sure you feel the same way. Like a good clinician's a good clinician. It doesn’t matter. If you’re a doctor, dentist, nurse, whatever, if you just have that in you. And so it’s great working on that kind of team, where you’re taking care of so many other aspects and my job was to take care of the psych aspect of it. So I had to do an assessment and I had to help them get back to work. And what I found is the type of treatment I resonate the most with, which is cognitive behavior therapy. I find it works really, really well with educators because it fits well with the way it works together. And what I mean by that is I think inherently educators understand there’s lots of different skill sets. I think we’ve broken down our conceptualization of intelligence, just being, it’s not just verbal, it’s not just mathematical and logical. It’s like a lot of other skill sets. I think that the whole idea of multiple intelligence has really blown that wide open. I think that’s why, as a shop teacher, those skills are just as invaluable as learning other skills, right? Like whether it’s visual arts or English or math or whatever, because for those students, they can go on and have a career or even a hobby in those areas. And there’s so much satisfaction that can come out of it. So one of the things I find that resonates well with them is that taking care of your mental health is just another skill set. It’s like taking care of your physical health. There’s a certain level of education that we all need to know. And I think now, in today’s day and age, we know that exercise is good for you. Whereas a hundred years ago that wasn’t known. It wasn’t proven. And now that we know that, we all know that whether or not we do it, we know we should exercise. And I think the challenge with mental health is that people know what the basic things are. They know that exercise is important. They know diet’s important. They know hobbies are important. They know sleep’s important. But beyond that, it’s not like there’s a lot of other specific skill sets that people really know about. How do you become more self-aware of what your triggers are? What your changes and your emotions are, what your patterns are around that, how do you better manage your thoughts, right? How do you regulate your emotions when they spike up? How do you calm it down so that you can get yourself back in the zone? There’s all these different skill sets that people need to learn. And I find that cognitive behavior therapy does a really good job of giving a framework to it. It starts with education. And from education, it leads to training. And with the training, you need to do exercises, and as you do those exercises, you get more experience. And as you get more experience, you get better at those skills. Then if you just keep building on those skills, and what those skills are, it’s like teaching any subject. And it doesn’t matter what it is. I think that is really it. It resonates well with them. I think it also resonates because they see they’re very open to mental health. I do find this for educators compared to, again, I can compare it with healthcare. I find that healthcare workers are also very conscientious people. Their openness to mental health though, ironically, is very low. Which is really ironic ‘cause they’re in the profession of healthcare, but healthcare is generally physical. Healthcare is the way that our systems are set up both in Canada and the U.S. for the most part. And so the mental healthcare landscape is highly variable. I say it’s the Wild West. There’s a lot of things that are unregulated. There’s lots of different types of treatments. You see one psychologist on the west coast, it’s gonna be different. It's gonna be different than somebody on the east coast. Potentially gonna be different than somebody else in the city. There’s so many different approaches to it. And so I think that’s one of the challenges that people have to contend with. I think that having a framework for educators, where it’s one where education was learning, and so what ended up happening is I had a lot of success with a lot of teachers. I worked with Jack’s group more and more and more and other groups like his. And then I got to know the union in British Columbia — the B.C. Teachers Federation — and they’ve been open to mental health and support for a long time. They’ve had a health and wellness program for a long time. I know that Mike Chemis, the B.C. Teachers Federation, he’s really driven a lot of initiatives. And one of his colleagues at the time, Illa Wilson, was really big on trying to get mental health, education, and knowledge to more and more teachers. And so they sponsored me to do a group treatment for a few teachers. It was my attempt to get to more. So it went from one to five, six, seven at a time. And they loved the results. They wanted it to roll out to all their teachers. And then I said to them, well, I’ve got this idea of having an online program for teachers. If I build it, would you guys be interested in rolling it out to all your members? And so they were really interested. And then, before I knew it, they agreed to roll it out to about forty-five thousand of their members. This changed my career from treating people all the time and assessing them to building online programs.

Dr. Chris Balow (21:07):

Yeah, yeah. It is so interesting. I love the way you really dovetailed physical health skills. And as you said, we’ve learned the skills of how to be physically healthy, but there’s also these skills around mental health. As you were talking, I was thinking about how teachers spend a lot of time teaching kids critical thinking skills. There’s algorithms and there’s specific facts we teach our students, but also we teach them how to think in the classroom and how to analyze situations and data from a very cognitive perspective. And so maybe that’s why teachers sort of resonate with cognitive behavior therapy, because it really is about changing or building your skills and thinking, which is the basis of mental health.

Dr. Andrew Miki (22:08):

I agree. There’s so many different skill sets that people can learn and improve on. I do find that when we look at different types of skill sets. So one big bucket is really trying to target your physiology. So a lot of times when people are experiencing heightened anxiety, they find there’s two changes in their body. They might be shaking, or they might be sweating, or they might be breathing differently or having heart palpitations, things like that. I think that’s one of the reasons why so many mindfulness apps or just breathing apps have really taken off, because it really helps you learn to regulate those emotions. And I think one of the reasons why they’re popular is because it can work well if you like that type of thing. And it works well right across the general population, but it’s the less cognitive type of tool than other ones. I do find that generally there’s some cognitive or there’s some tools under cognitive behavior therapy that really focuses on thoughts and being more aware of your thoughts and how you manage your thoughts. And one of my favorite tools is something called the thought record, and there’s different versions of it. But one of the ones I like the most is from this book called Mind Over Mood. It’s a huge book in clinical psychology. It’s a workbook for the general public, and it really helps people understand how do you take all your thoughts? How do you identify some of the key ones that are really distressing you? And then how do you go through a process or a framework? So you come up with a more balanced thought or an alternative thought or a different point of view on it. One of the things I find is that a lot of educators have success with that because it is a very cognitive technique. They have to think, they have to sit down, they have to write it out. And it fits well with the type of people they are and what they’re bringing to the table.

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Dr. Chris Balow (25:31):

You mentioned earlier about your company and building an online platform to try to help more people. So why did you start this company, and how can it really help teachers in their mental health?

Dr. Andrew Miki (25:49):

I started the company because I feel like the mental healthcare system is the wild west, and there’s so much variability. And when I first started getting into psychology, when I finally got into clinical and I finally started treating people, always like my lifelong dream, was to do treatment. And when I started treating people, I didn’t really have a really clear conceptualization of what these different presentations are like. What does depression look like? What does anxiety look like? I had an idea of what anxiety looks like. Because I had a family member who really struggled with that. When you don’t really have an idea of what it is, you don’t really know who struggles with these things. And then, growing up, you watch movies and you’re like, okay, well, mental illness is this extreme thing. And I think that that’s the way that a lot of people look at it. And when I started treating people, I started realizing, oh, you’re like my next-door neighbor. And, oh, you remind me of my uncle, and you remind me of so-and-so, and I’m like, these are just like regular people that are struggling with these disorders. But depression, like anxiety, so many people, just common people, that were experiencing it. I’m like, no, it’s not like what I saw in the movies. It’s not what I thought. And so I had this frustration that it’s like so many good people struggle with it. And because of the stigma, because of how ashamed people feel, I feel like a lot of people in silence and, and they don’t reach out for help. I think a lot of that’s changing. If you compare fifty years ago compared to now, or even twenty years ago compared to now, things are changing, which is for the better, but there’s still a lot of stigma when it comes to mental illness. And it’s unfair, because it’s just part of your health, and so is your physical health. I built this program because I thought, if we can create a program that’s that, people can agree that this is based on good science, right? This is based on the gold standard. If you were to go see any psychologist, what types of things would they do? And what types of things would they teach you? What kind of information would they give you? What kind of exercises would they give you? How would they train you in all these different areas? And I thought, well, if we could build that, then it’s a gateway for people to start learning about their mental health and to empower them to take their own mental health into their own hands. And the reason why I think it works so well with teachers, again, is because they’re really conscientious. They’re very proactive. And also, like I said, they’re open to mental health. And so we leverage all of these personality characteristics in teachers, and we say, okay, well, if it’s too much to do anything, ‘cause you’re busy and it’s too overwhelming to see a psychologist or see somebody who you need for help. Well, would you be willing to log on for maybe ten minutes a day, a couple days a week, just to start learning about it and dip your toe into it from the comfort of your own home? And if you do it in a really safe environment and you do it in a way where it’s just full of peers, like full of other teachers and you don’t have to worry about there being parents or administrators or things like that, it’s just a program full of teachers. Would that feel more safe, and would that increase more engagement and help people more? And by and large, we’ve been very fortunate in lots of ways. We’ve had a lot of great people working with us, for us. We’ve had great teams. We’ve been able to keep building and reaching more and more — teachers, educators, administrators — over the years.

Dr. Chris Balow (29:28):

Fantastic. I’ve noticed fairly recently a proliferation of online mental health platforms and a lot of advertisements on TV for it. And so it seems perhaps there is more acceptance of that approach. And as you were saying, it would probably reduce the stigma, make it more convenient, more accessible, twenty-four seven. One of the things I learned about your platform is that it’s one size fits all. It actually, and you can talk about how it really assesses where you’re at to adjust to meet your needs and monitors your progress over time.

Dr. Andrew Miki (30:15):

Yeah. It’s been a really fun ride, Chris, because it’s something I never thought I would ever do. I thought that, like a lot of teachers, you have this vision, you have this goal, right? My goal is to be a clinical psychologist and do lots of treatment. I love treatment. That’s one of my passions in life. I love getting people better and out of my office. That was always a philosophy of mine. I never wanted to be the psychologist who was like, “Oh, good to see you. Time’s up. Same time next week.” You know what I mean? And just keep doing that over. I swore to myself I would never do that. And so, in my enthusiasm to kind of just keep trying to do things, I realize that I’m a lot more restless than I ever thought I was. And going to this online started this in 2013, right. So there’s been, I’ve seen the evolution of all of these apps. And so we were in the really early days. And so that allowed us to have multiple versions of the program over the years. Like we’ve created one and then we destroyed it and learned from that one and built up the next one. And then we did it again and, and again, and now we’re on the fifth generation of these programs in terms of major changes, cause we’re always changing the program. We’re always improving it. But I think where it started is where it makes sense and where I think a lot of these programs have started where it’s very linear in a one-size-fits-all and you do that because you don’t really know how to tailor it in an online way. And so we’ve learned over the years what is it that people are looking for, how do you tailor it, and how do you build a program to help you tailor that? Because as a psychologist, you wanna be able to say, okay, well, depending on this presentation, like, for example, if somebody’s coming in and their checkup scores are really high. It doesn’t look like they’ve got any kind of depression or anxiety. Stress is manageable, they have good energy and look like they’re resilient. What do they need to do? Well, it depends on what their level of interest is. If they’re not really interested in doing anything else, what the very least our recommendation would then be, we’ll take up another checkup in like six months. Like in three to six months, because you just wanna monitor it, and we’ll show people graphs in terms of how things are changing. It’s sort of like going to see your GP for a checkup. That’s why we call it a checkup. You just want to monitor it and make sure it’s healthy, but if you’re struggling with anything — say with just anxiety and that’s it — right. You’re not experiencing depression. Then it’s a different kind of use case. And so how do you talk to that person, and how do you make it feel personalized for that person and put the right information in front of them? It’s been an amazing journey in terms of working with a lot of really, really creative people and the world, which I had no idea about a lot of these things. I’d never heard of terms like user experience and the front end or the back end of these programs. I had no idea. So I learned a lot, and we’ve evolved it to be a lot more tailored for the individual.

Dr. Chris Balow (33:15):

Yeah. Awesome. The other thing that’s really cool too about the Starling Minds platform is the community of users where, if I’m logged in as a teacher, everyone’s got their own username.

Dr. Andrew Miki (33:33):

Code name.

Dr. Chris Balow (33:33):

Yeah. Code name. I can kind of see how other people are feeling and responding to these stressors that we’re all feeling in the classroom.

Dr. Andrew Miki (33:44):

There’s something I’ve learned about different professions where people are like tribes. And I know the author, Malcolm Gladwell, often talks about how lots of people bind to their own tribe. And they have their own language, and they have their own way of being, and I will leave that. I try to describe what I view as the personality of an educator to a certain degree. There’s a certain like-mindedness among a lot of these people across the board, and for them to be in a community, it’s one of those things where we tried it. I think this was back in about 2016, where we thought, you know what, let’s just try this. Let’s put it in. And some people in the company were like, “I don’t know. How are people gonna be? How are they gonna behave in a community? Are we gonna have to monitor this? Or how are we gonna monitor it?” If somebody says something offside, we’ve been very pleasantly surprised. I mean, we do monitor it. We do have human eyeballs on it as part of our customer success team. But we also have an algorithm behind it. So it does monitor the words that people put in. So if there’s any kind of self-harm or extreme words, it does pick it up and alert us. But you know what? Overall, Chris, I’m shocked at how little gets flagged. I’m shocked at how few contentious comments there are in terms of people saying something offside, saying something insulting, or anything like that. We’ve had tens of thousands of people go through it. And I think we’ve only had to warn one or two people.

Dr. Chris Balow (35:17):

Wow. That’s great.

Dr. Andrew Miki (35:19):

Isn’t it? Because when I look at a lot of forums on YouTube, or if you go to news sites, what people say…

Dr. Chris Balow (35:30):

Oh, it’s a sewer.

Dr. Andrew Miki (35:31):

It is. And I guess I’m not surprised, right? Because there’s so much anonymity on the internet. People can say really, really extreme things. And it very insults me. Whereas in ours, we’ve been very, very fortunate to touch wood in terms of like, yeah, people say things and what I see teachers saying to administrators, or even administrators saying to other administrators, because we put them into different pockets so that they’re with their own group of people. They are just so supportive, and they talk to each other, like they would talk, support each other in real life, or how they would support a student. And so a lot of our initiatives around like, look at how you guys are talking to each other. You gotta talk to yourself like that too, though. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to get them toward. But then to your point as well, it’s so helpful for them to see what other people are saying. How they’re one of the most common comments that we get. And the one that resonates within our company the most is every time we see somebody say, “This is really helpful. I don’t feel so alone.” Because it’s terrible when you’re struggling with something, especially mental illness, because of this stigma that we talked about. And teaching and education, even as an administrator, can be a very lonely profession. And I think the public doesn’t always recognize that. I think sometimes people look at the profession and they say, “Well, you’re with people all the time. How can it be so lonely?” And no, if you’re a teacher, you can hole yourself up in the classroom and close the door. When the students are gone, nobody comes in, you don’t interact with your peers, and you go home. And then, as the administrator, it’s lonely at the top. You’re the leader. People look to you for strength and to solve their problems. You can’t show too much weakness to a certain degree. It depends on your relationships, but you’re the leader. You gotta be strong. You gotta lead them through a lot of these things.

Dr. Chris Balow (37:24):

Yeah. So yeah, it really does give them that support. And we know from teacher attrition research that collaboration is a really important protective factor. And certainly teachers are collaborating around instructional techniques, but probably not around how they’re doing in terms of their mental health. Gosh, I’ve got so many more questions, but I want you to explain the term you use instead of mental health. I just love it. Would you explain that term?

Dr. Andrew Miki (38:02):

So the term we often use is mental fitness. I love the term, same as you. The word evolved from my life. My dad was a physician. He’s retired now, but he was a family physician. And the way he got into it was he lives in Vancouver, and his family was from Japan. They were a group of fishermen. He worked as a fisherman and learned that he hated it. He didn’t wanna do it. So he went to university, and back then, he was one of the few people in his group that went to university. He went into physical education because that was the area he liked. And then he went on to school in the states. He got into Stanford and almost worked for NASA. But then he realized he wanted to go into medicine. And one of the things he took with him as he went into medicine was his physical health and physical education background. I talked to him a lot about psychology, and he’s the one who actually told me and gave me the idea. He’s like, “You should be a psychologist.” And that was like a light bulb going off. I’m like, wow. Yeah, that’s what I want to do. And so I was very fortunate at a young age. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. We talked a lot over time about mental health and what he was seeing in his patients. And then, as my career progressed, it was like what I was seeing in mind and how they were getting better and how it was like a lot of exercises they would do. I remember I was fortunate where the two of us were able to work together in his office for a number of years before I started Starling. We’d sit and we’d have lunch and we’d talk about it. And then he’s like, this is a lot like physical health, right? Where it’s like exercises, you’re getting people to do exercises, and they’re getting better physically. Their physical fitness is improving when they do things like that. And he is like, you’re doing the same thing, but their mental fitness isn’t improving. And I’m like, yeah, it is. Over the years, I’ve seen it in terms of “What does it look like when people have good mental fitness?” It’s that kind of betterment. You can manage your thoughts. You’re better able to compartmentalize your worry. You can move on. You can set good boundaries. You can be assertive. I think confidence is a big part of all the exercises you need to keep feeding to increase your confidence. Because I do believe that confidence is a protective factor against things like depression and anxiety. The more you mentally exercise, the stronger mentally you’re gonna be. And the more stress you can take on. I mean, everybody’s human, so if you take on too much, you’re gonna slide down. But it’s like that physical exercise. If you do that and if you are physically more fit, it will protect you against disease. So the parallels are huge. I think as well of the work we’ve done at Starling Minds, and mental fitness is a very approachable term. People get it in their own way. They like it. It’s not like saying mental health, because when you say mental health, people think mental illness. And when people think of mental illness, they think of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is so unfair. For the vast majority of people who experience depression and anxiety to get painted in that same bucket is just not right.

Dr. Chris Balow (41:26):

Right. And so mental fitness is — I just love that term — it’s about prevention. So everybody, not just those who may be struggling with high levels of stress or anxiety, everyone needs to monitor their mental fitness and work on it. Even if you’re super healthy, you wanna stay that way and build those skills that someday you may need.

Dr. Andrew Miki (41:57):

It goes right through the continuum. Say you’re somebody who has been compromised in some way physically. Maybe a limb or maybe a disease has really limited how physically fit you can be. Well, whatever situation you’re in, there’s always things you can do to maximize whatever you got. An extreme example would be you’re an Olympic athlete. Now all of a sudden you’re wheelchair bound or something like that. Well, still, how can you maximize whatever you’ve got, and how do you strengthen whatever you’ve got? What are exercises you can do? And I think that holds really well in the physical world, but in the mental world, it holds well even if you have depression, anxiety. I feel like those are the most common that people experience. But if you’ve got something else — either a more extreme form of those, or another type of condition like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or lots of other different types of mental health problems people might experience — there’s still ways you can increase your own mental fitness. There’s still ways you can maximize whatever you’ve got, or you can work around some of the tendencies that you might have depending on what the overall presentation is.

Dr. Chris Balow (43:20):

Awesome. Gosh, we’re almost out of time, Andrew. So a couple quick, quick ones here. Why did you call your company Starling Minds?

Dr. Andrew Miki (43:33):

I call it Starling Minds because when I went through school, I always knew I wanted to go into clinical psychology. The way my mind works is that I think I’m generally pretty good with concepts and explaining things, but I’m not really good at memorizing textbooks, and I’m terrible at multiple choice. So if you want to go into clinical psychology and you’ve gotta get through the first couple years at university, it’s really difficult because all the tests are multiple choice. So I struggled with that, and I ended up working instead of going into the clinical stream right away. Because it was so competitive, I ended up working in a lab at Queens where it was a neuroscience, and what they looked at were black-cap chickadees and whether or not they could tell the difference between your certain song versus somebody else’s, or if all the songs were the same and it didn’t really matter. And what they found is yeah, it was very specific to the individual. Very much like your voice and my voice, and the way you say a word, I can tell it’s Chris because of the way he says it. So that led me down a career. I ended up going into two years of graduate work where we really studied how pigeons learn to time stimuli, how they learn to count stimuli. And it really taught me how animals learn. It’s one of those things in a lot of people’s careers where you’re like, why am I doing this? Like, this is not what I wanted to do. But then, when you ultimately get into whatever it is you wanted to do — and for me it was clinical psych — that background is so invaluable. I could see how people learn to be anxious or learn to be depressed over time. And when I do assessments with people, I really try to understand how it is that they went from relatively fine in their world to then what are all the changes that happened. So now, all of a sudden they’re more depressed. Understanding that learning helps me then figure out what tools we need to put in place to make changes so that we help them unlearn those behaviors and move in a different direction. I love the idea of learning and how it plays into mental health. I love the idea of how we learn so much from the animal world. And so I’ve got an affinity for birds. Partly it comes from my dad. He's got a deep interest in it. I’ve got a very, very beginner amateur interest. I can still hear black-cap chickadees when I’m walking around. But it’s one of those things where I thought, well, let’s still call it Starling. And when somebody mentioned the name starling, my immediate reaction was no. Like who likes starling? They’re pests. I don’t find them particularly attractive. I won’t really like them. Like why would we call ’em that? One of the things as I learned more and more about starlings is that the North American Starling I still think isn’t necessarily the most attractive bird in the world, but there are different species. There’s one in Africa that’s a bright color. Really beautiful. And like a lot of animals we don’t always understand, there’s a lot of complexity behind them. If you’ve ever seen something called a murmuration, it’s hundreds of starlings flying together. It’s like a cloud of smoke that moves around. It’s absolutely amazing, and we don’t really know all the reasons why they do it. I watched a video on it, and it was amazing in terms of how they don’t necessarily have a leader, but they all work together. I love that concept. And I love that in terms of like, oh, if we bring every member we bring on, it’s like a Starling, there’s no leader, but they’re all helping each other with a common good. So there was that part of it. There was also the part where my immediate reaction was where I didn’t like it. And I’m like, that’s what people go through when it comes to mental health. It’s like, Chris, I want to talk to you about your mental health and mental illness. And most people are like, no, no, I don’t want to talk about it. Like let’s keep that away. But then if I say, well, let’s just talk about a few common topics. I just wanna talk, tell you what your battery is, and how your battery’s gonna affect your mental health. And then once people start learning a little bit more and a little bit more, as I did with Starling, it’s like, oh, it’s not what I thought it was. It’s not this huge, scary thing. It’s not what I thought these birds were. It really opened my eyes to how starlings are, even in my own mind. They’re so much more complex. They are so much more beautiful than I gave them credit for. And so the name has those roots in my animal learning background and working with birds and experiments and things like that. And it carried right through to the company name.

Dr. Chris Balow (48:13):

What a nice story. Where can people learn more about Starling Minds and your mental fitness platform?

Dr. Andrew Miki (48:21):

Our website is Starling Minds dot com. It’s one of the reasons why we call it Starling, this is back in the day two, we’re trying to get domain names and things like that. So yeah, that’s definitely the best area. If people have any direct questions, I try to keep my email pretty open. I’m always interested in what people have to say. My email address is Andrew dot Miki at Starling Minds dot com. So people can feel free to email us or email me and reach out. But yeah, it’s just one of those things where like I said, you never expect your career to go in certain directions. I never expected to work with so many educators in my career. But at the end of the day, talking to somebody about this, think in terms of psychology, I don’t work well with really chronic cases where it’s slow, incremental gains over a really long period of time. I like working with people for a couple of months and taking them from a state of being off work, being on disability, and getting them back to the classroom. That, to me, is the biggest thrill. I love that. And what we are all about is trying to get people to that level. And so I really gravitate toward lots of people and lots of organizations that are looking to do that. Like, we got a clear goal here. Where are we starting from? What’s the goal? And then what do we need to do to really help empower people to have the tools themselves, that they can drive themselves toward that goal?

Dr. Chris Balow (49:52):

Fantastic. Well, Dr. Andrew Miki, founder, and chief science officer at Starling Minds, it’s been just fantastic having you on the podcast. I’ve learned a lot. I’m sure our listeners have as well. And before I let you go, you have to do our fast five. And so let’s jump into that. What was your favorite subject in school?

Dr. Andrew Miki (50:13):

I guess in high school it was biology, but really in university, of course it was psychology.

Dr. Chris Balow (50:19):

Of course. Psychology. What are your hobbies?

Dr. Andrew Miki (50:22):

I love fantasy football. That’s just wrapped up. I love the outdoors. I love lots of sports. Pretty much anything my kids are willing to play, I’m willing to play. But I love golfing. I love skiing. Golfing is definitely one of the high points, and I love fishing.

Dr. Chris Balow (50:40):

Awesome. I’d love to play golf with you someday. It’s one of my passions as well.

Dr. Andrew Miki (50:45):


Dr. Chris Balow (50:45):

Who is your hero?

Dr. Andrew Miki (50:48):

I guess just because I talked about him earlier, I’d say that my dad’s my hero. I mean, he grew up just after the war. My parents were my grandparents were interned during the war, like a lot of Japanese, yeah. Americans and, so to go where he’s, I like to go where always come from, from that place, fishing to Stanford to, it career in medicine and then like, that, part I find it really impressive, but like the way that I’ve been able to learn so much, clinical skills from them in terms of how you treat people, how you increase rapport, how you interact with people when they’re sick, and how you get them better. I’ve definitely learned a lot around that.

Dr. Chris Balow (51:32):

Well, your dad must be very proud of you, Andrew, for sure. If you could share a meal with an individual living or dead famous person, who would that be?

Dr. Andrew Miki (51:44):

Oh, well, the one that comes off the top of my head right now, there’s so many, but just because he lost in the playoffs, it’d be Tom Brady.

Dr. Chris Balow (51:56):

Tom Brady. Okay.

Dr. Andrew Miki (51:57):

Tom Brady. I’ve been a long-time Tom Brady fan. I love his story. I love how he’s the underdog. He got picked last in the draft. Pretty much went on to be this amazing quarterback and found success in so many, many different ways and dominated his sport for way longer than anybody else has. I think it’s an unbelievable story, and I’d love to just hear about how you can not only achieve that level of success but sustain it for so long. And what it takes to do that I just think is such an incredible story.

Dr. Chris Balow (52:29):

Yeah. I would say he’s mentally fit in many ways.

Dr. Andrew Miki (52:33):

I think you have to be I think the way that you go from being an underdog, where everybody loves you to then being the top dog, and then to see the shift from being so beloved, ’cause you’re the underdog to win and nobody expected it to then being the one that’s dominating and then people start to hate you. They start to villainize.

Dr. Chris Balow (52:53):

Jealousy rears its ugly head.

Dr. Andrew Miki (52:57):

I think it’s a component.

Dr. Chris Balow (53:00):

Last question. What would you sing at karaoke night?

Dr. Andrew Miki (53:04):

Well, I’m a terrible singer. So probably not a whole lot, but if I had to sing anything, it’d probably be Sweet Child o’ Mine by Guns and Roses.

Dr. Chris Balow (53:12):

Oh, there you go. There you go. Fantastic. Well, again, Dr. Andrew Miki, thanks so much for being on Change Agents in K-12.

Dr. Andrew Miki (53:20):

Yeah. Thanks for having me, Chris. It was great to be here.

Voice Over (53:23):

Thank you for listening to the Change Agents in K-12 podcast brought to you by SchoolMint. Find us on all major podcast platforms and make sure to subscribe so you never miss a show. See you next time.