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Making a Difference

Every little bit helps in the fight to end the stigma

I was listening to a Smartless podcast recently. The hosts were interviewing David Remnick, the longtime editor of the New Yorker, and discussing the world’s challenges: the pandemic, threats to democracy, etc. One of them griped, “I can’t do anything about any of it.”


It struck a chord because I frequently feel that way about the stigma surrounding mental illness—what can I really do?

“Do I understand your question, man, are you hopeless and forlorn?" -- Bob Dylan

But Remnick responded immediately in disagreement. “Each person can play some kind of role,” he said. Even if you feel helpless, he argued, like the challenge is insurmountable, every little act can chip away at the problem. He was talking about climate change, but his reasoning could apply just as easily to brain illness.


The next day a friend contacted me, someone who had just finished reading my book. She thanked me for writing it and told me how valuable she had found our story. Her teenager was struggling with anxiety issues, and she was trying to better understand how to support her daughter. I remembered the podcast and realized Remnick was right; I had made a difference, in my own way.


But later that week, I was reminded that some people do much more. I was scanning the Harvard student-run paper, and I came across this article. A nonprofit called Active Minds had scattered one thousand backpacks across the lawn in Harvard Yard. Each backpack was donated by the family of a college student who had died of suicide. The packs were symbolic—about a thousand college students die of suicide every year.


If you’ve never been to Harvard Yard, I can assure you that this would have been a powerful display. A bustling campus, you would have seen spirited students moving about, mingling together, and studying on the grass. But backpacks were lying everywhere, many with pictures and notes attached. The juxtaposition of such sobering reminders of loss scattered amongst the promise of energetic youth would have been startling.


“Sending big waves into motion..." -- Rachel Platten

Researching Active Minds, I learned that the organization was started about twenty years ago by a student from UPenn. She lost her brother to suicide, and she set out to make a change. If not for the stigma, her brother might have reached out for help. And with support and the appropriate treatment, his death could have been prevented. Alison Malmon knew this, and she did something about it.


Today, Active Minds leads a network of over 500 chapters focused on battling the stigma, preventing teen suicide, and raising awareness about mental health education. One of the group’s main messages is that seeking help is a show of strength rather than weakness. Active Minds runs backpack displays like the one at Harvard. It also sponsors campus speakers, local workshops, and several other schoolwide programs. It does all of this because of one person—what an incredible legacy.


Then I attended the annual Kennedy Forum’s Annual Meeting on mental health. Although held virtually, the conference brought together dozens of individuals and organizations focused on changing the dialogue surrounding brain health. They were all doing their part to end the stigma. But the one who had the greatest impact was Patrick Kennedy, the person behind the conference and the founder of the Kennedy Forum.


“I'm not afraid to take a stand. Everybody come take my hand." -- Eminem

Several influential families are also using their resources in this crusade. The Close family, led by sisters Jessie and Glenn, backs a powerful anti-stigma media campaign through its nonprofit, BringChange2Mind. The Staglin family is funding cutting edge research into brain illness with its organization, One Mind. And Lada Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, are supporting youth emotional health through their Born This Way Foundation.


We can’t all be Alison Malman, Patrick Kennedy, or a member of one of these prominent families, but we can play our own roles, no matter how small. We can all do our part to shine a light on the fact that mental illness should be treated like any other illness. If you missed what Glenn Close said over ten years ago, it's worth revisiting:

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation about illnesses that affect not only individuals, but their families as well."
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