Passing the torch to the next generation of societal leaders

Hear from our Community: Nurturing Mental Health for a Society of Wellbeing

Insights from the 40u40 Community: Alexandra Boogers, Khalid El Hatri and Kristel Van den Bergh about Mental Health Awareness

According to the report ‘For a healthy Belgium’ from Sciensano, around one in four Belgians experienced an anxiety or depressive disorder in 2022. In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of mental wellbeing. Many Members of Belgium’s 40 under 40 Community are eager to contribute to this cause. Their shared goal is to increase awareness of mental health and contribute to the creation of a society of wellbeing. In the spirit of October’s designation as Mental Health Awareness Month, we invited Khalid El Hatri, Alexandra Boogers, and Kristel Van den Bergh to participate in a discussion about the role of mental wellbeing in our society.

We interviewed three Members of our Community to share their insights about mental health. Khalid El Hatri is the founder and director of Young FENIX, a mental health and wellbeing organization. His work focuses on combining prevention and early intervention by addressing the mental wellbeing needs and issues of young people in an inclusive and diverse manner, especially those growing up in socially vulnerable circumstances. Alexandra Boogers is a neurologist with a PhD in neuroscience, specialized in the treatment of individuals with Parkinson’s disease. By working with people with neurological diseases, she understands the psychological aspects of patients dealing with anxiety, depression, and coping challenges as a secondary effect of their neurological issues. Kristel Van den Bergh works at the King Baudouin Foundation as a Managing Director of the Prince Albert Fund, a role in a leadership development program that further deepened her interest in strengthening mental resilience in young adults. In a fast-paced world, where expectations are high and stress omnipresent, it is easy to fall out of balance, and Kristel wants to create more awareness for mental wellbeing. Together, these three 40u40 Members bring complementary perspectives and expertise to the conversation surrounding mental health and societal wellbeing.

Creating a society of wellbeing for welldoing: Inner Development Goals

As noted in the discussion, prioritizing mental wellbeing is imperative to effectively address societal problems and achieve ambitious societal goals. Kristel highlights the interconnection between reaching major goals as a society and the wellbeing of the individual. In doing so, she introduces the notion of Inner Development Goals (IDGs), a parallel framework to the commonly known Sustainable Development Goals. The IDGs show “that we cannot reach these amazing outcomes on climate, migration and poverty, if we, as humans, do not develop our inner leader abilities, including our resilience.” The relationship we have to ourselves is important. The first pillar of the IDG puts importance on the aspect of “Being”, which incorporates the ability to cultivate our inner life, to have a realistic self-image, to develop our relationship to our thoughts and feelings, and helps us be present. For Kristel, the aspect of “Being” is an underrated leadership skill in a fast-paced world where there is often no time and space to slow down. Nurturing this quality allows for deeper self-reflection, for meaningful connections with others, and to fully recharge, all crucial drivers of mental wellbeing.

Inner Development Goals (

Balancing acknowledgment and positivity 

The “Being” part, which includes the process of letting the emotions flow in and allowing yourself to feel, is an important step to take care of your mental health. In addition, it is just as important to acknowledge these feelings. The three 40u40 interviewees agree on the importance of finding the right balance between recognizing someone’s struggles and providing encouragement. Kristel introduces the concept of toxic positivity, the societal pressure to maintain a positive outlook, invalidating negative emotions or experiences. When people facing mental struggles are pressured to hide their problems or told to disregard them, it can result in increased isolation and unhealthy coping mechanisms. “By doing so, the affected person now has two problems: the negative emotion and on top of that, the feeling that something is wrong with them”. Encouraging someone to look at the bright sides and to move on “denies the experience of the moment”, meaning it denies the healthy process of feeling and healing the negative emotions. Alexandra introduces here the act of deep listening, a strategy she learned in the 40u40 program, that makes your conversation partner feel truly heard. When her patients struggle with their mental health, she listens to them and acknowledges their pain: “I want to name the elephant in the room and let the elephant be there for a little bit”. Khalid emphasizes that in order to create a society of wellbeing, where mental health is a priority, it is important to find a “balance between positivity and empowerment, but also recognizing the person’s position and pain.” There is a need to “address what we see, talk about the pain” even if it is difficult to say it out loud.


I want to name the elephant in the room and let the elephant
be there for a little bit.

Building supporting communities for wellbeing

The saying “It takes a village to raise a child” is something Kristel, Khalid and Alexandra all resonate with. Humans need a community, a place to feel supported, heard and inspired. Khalid believes that individualism contributes to the deterioration of mental health, “we live in a society where everyone is closed in their own bubble. Loneliness is something many people struggle with.” For him, we need to rediscover “how we can build communities where people can learn from each other, where people can talk with each other, where people can connect with each other.” Nowadays, we live behind “closed doors”, as Kristel explains. However, everyone needs a “safety net to fall back on.” It is important to feel connected and supported within a community because this sense of connection and support plays a crucial role in fostering emotional wellbeing and resilience. In addition, sharing your hardship with a community can serve as a beacon of inspiration by sharing experiences, both of success and challenges, representing and normalizing the mental health struggles.

Overcoming unrealistic expectations

We live in a society where we thrive for an image of perfection and expectations are high. Khalid, Kristel, and Alexandra observe how young adults often want to reach their full potential, they are ambitious and put themselves under a lot of pressure to excel professionally and privately. Not just young adults, the pressure is high for everyone, and people experience a set of high expectations: to be a good mother and have a successful career, to be a strong and independent man, to have the perfect body, relationship, house, or car. Alexandra adds that social media plays a big role in amplifying those images by showcasing only the positive sides of life, and never the hardship, thus setting unrealistic expectations. According to Kristel, the image of perfection is unhealthy: “Society is telling me to be this perfect thing, which is simply unattainable. It will drive up pressure, drive up disappointments. There is a persistent productivity narrative in our culture, where busyness is highly valued, and our self-worth is often measured by external achievements. This cultural narrative can be quite hard to break, and it frequently comes at the cost of relationships and personal wellbeing. Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing wrong with a healthy striving for excellence, but I suggest we paint a more balanced and reasonable picture.” While we all have an intrinsic desire for control, it is essential to learn how to deal with uncertainty and let go of the illusion of control and perfection.

© Emma Simpson / Unsplash

Creating space for early intervention 

One crucial step to elevate the mental wellbeing of society is to raise awareness that we need to take care of our mental health. Just as we attend to our physical wellbeing, we must also nurture our mental wellbeing. Anyone can experience a broken wrist, and anyone can experience depression. Khalid explains that “we need to normalize mental health. It can affect anyone regardless of their gender, age, race or ethnicity.” Similar to physical health conditions, some people are more prone to develop mental health issues, Alexandra compares it to getting a bad lottery ticket: “Some people are biologically prone to have, for instance, depression. If you put on top of that people who face adversities like poverty for example, these people are definitely more likely to develop mental health difficulties.” Normalizing taking care of your mental health is key, as well as prevention and intervention. It is crucial to spot challenges in their early phases, and we need to “learn how to recognize when someone is struggling”, Khalid points out that “often, individuals facing mental health issues only seek help when their problems have significantly progressed. Instead of waiting for them to reach out, we should proactively extend our support. Creating awareness and normalizing these challenges is one step towards promoting prevention.”

Mental health and wellbeing at Belgium’s 40 under 40

At 40u40, we aim to bring together young talented leaders and give them a platform to develop their ideas, connect with one another, and create a positive impact on society. The initiative fosters individual and community wellbeing by providing a space for personal growth, support, and relationship building in a non-judgmental and expectation-free environment.

During the one year program, the Fellows are invited to participate in Conversation Circles where they can express themselves, share their vulnerabilities, and learn to acknowledge each other’s emotions. Belgium’s 40 under 40 puts great emphasis on building a community that encompasses multiple facets of society, encouraging members to look at the world in its plurality. It serves as a space for individuals to share, inspire and engage in meaningful conversations, as Peru Dharani, Cohort 2022 Alumni, shared during the Graduation Ceremony of the Cohort 2022. Belgium’s 40 under 40 hopes to empower its Members and promote wellbeing through open dialogue and individual and peer-to-peer support.

The path forward: The Wellbeing Summit

Alexandra Boogers, Khalid El Hatri and Kristel Van den Bergh shared valuable insights about the significance of mental wellbeing. The three 40u40 Members mention the importance of wellbeing to inspire welldoing. Nurturing individual mental health is fundamental for fostering a thriving society. This is also a leading motto for the upcoming Wellbeing Summit Brussels, a two-day program emphasizing wellbeing. The focus lies on taking care of yourself, your physical and mental health, but also your community, your organization, and our planet in a holistic way. When taking care of our inner wellbeing, we are inspired to do well for others. TheMerode is hosting this event in partnership with the Wellbeing Project for the first time in Brussels on November 16th and 17th.

The program offers a transformative journey bringing together speakers from diverse backgrounds, among other Belgium’s 40 under 40 Community Members:

    • Jean-Christophe Tellier: CEO of UCB and 40u40 Mentor
    • Thierry Geerts: Country Director of Google Belgium & Luxembourg and 40u40 Mentor
    • Diane Thibaut: Head Coach of Belgium’s 40 under 40
    • Adélaïde Charlier: Climate and Social Justice Activist and Fellow Cohort 2023
    • Peru Dharani: Head Corporate Innovation at Barco and Alumnus Cohort 2022
    • Gregoire de Hemptinne: Co-founder and COO of Shayp and Alumnus Cohort 2022
    • Katrien Herdewyn: Founder of Elegnano and Alumna of Cohort 2021 Autumn
    • Magali Bodeux: Senior Manager at Bain, Co-founder of Cohesion and Alumna of Cohort 2021 Spring


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