WEST HOLLYWOOD (LA ELEMENTS) 5/23/2017- “I am genuinely curious,” says actress Zelda Williams, addressing the capacity crowd of the Third Annual Philosophy Hope & Grace Luncheon. “How many times a day do you get to the counter and order your coffee or pass a co-worker in the hall and hear, ‘How are you?’ A lot? I would say a lot. And before that can even sink in how quickly do most of you usually respond with, ‘I’m fine, you?’
Williams hosted the luncheon, which was held on May 17th at the Fig & Olive restaurant in partnership with NAMI. Each year, Philosophy and NAMI team up not only to raise funds for those dealing with mental illness, but also to introduce a campaign to be shared on social media and public service announcements. A campaign designed to take away the stigma so often associated with metal illness itself. The hope is that by doing so, a path to healing may begin. The campaign selected for 2017 is, How Are You Really?
Aside from Zelda Williams, celebrity guests included Rumer Willis, Morgan Stewart and Rachel McCord. Also in attendance were social media influencers and writers from high profile media outlets.
In her speech to the assembled guests, Williams noted the ease with which concern is given to those who suffer from a physical injury as opposed to those whose injuries that are not so easily seen. “At least when the visible injuries are concerned, there’s often no shortage of people offering to help grab things or lift heavy loads. But what about the invisible scars? What about the illnesses and the healing and the battles being waged unseen beneath the surface and usually alone? What if we took a few extra minutes a day to ask another human being, ‘How are you really?’ and actually mean it whether we can see if something is wrong or not? Philosophy started the Hope & Grace Initiative to try and inspire the world to do just that. Because speaking from experience, it is more than just a greeting. And as someone who always prided herself on being the strong one who took care of others, there were a lot of people in my life who didn’t know how to check if I was OK when my world turned upside down.”
“We all have to take it day by day,” reflected Williams, who lost her father actor Robin Williams almost three years ago. “But asking at all instead of assuming is a great first step. There’s no proven formula and no singular phrase that makes it all suddenly better. But having someone else know what you’re suffering through definitely makes that weight feel a little lighter.”
You won’t be able to heal what troubles you if you can’t even talk about it in the first place. And that is the real beauty behind the #HowAreYouReally campaign. As Philosophy Vice President of Global PR Tiffani Carter noted while addressing the capacity luncheon crowd, “Our How Are You Really campaign and public service announcement, really engages women with that single question which somehow has become routine and riddled with mundane answers. So we believe that adding the word, ‘really’ is a way to open up that door for conversation. Speaking freely is ultimately a first stop in healing and all it takes is one small act of grace. I like to say that we all have mental health. We are all dealing with something whether it’s a moment in time, a moment in your life or a diagnosed mental illness.”
The fear of being judged when asking for help during times of despair and confusion can be difficult enough. But what about the challenges faced by immigrant cultures and people of color who feel as though they already face judgment here in America simply because of where they or their families came from?
Together Empowering Asian Minds (TEAM) is an advocacy group focused on issues of mental health within the Asian community and is a grant recipient of The Philosophy Hope & Grace Initiative. Earlier this year, TEAM held a contest for the video which best exemplified their mission “To engage, educate and empower Asian Americans with culturally relevant resources and peer support so as to de-stigmatize seeking help for mental health problems.” Lily Luo created the winning video, “Tired Dragon Lady,” and was invited to give a speech at the Hope & Grace Luncheon. Luo addressed the reason why she believes people in the Asian community do not seek help for mental health issues at the rate of people in white communities by recalling a conversation she had with a therapist who attended the awards ceremony for her video. Someone who wondered if the reason why was because Asian culture did not recognize the importance of mental health professionals in the first place.
“I carefully explained that communities of color have had every reason throughout history not to trust the professional psychiatric community. That it was in the field of psychiatry that a dichotomy of normal and abnormal behavior often placed whiteness and wealth at the center of normal, and poor, queer people of color on the opposite end. I explained that even as someone with the financial means to access therapy it took me many years to recognize that it was something, I, a queer Asian American woman could benefit from.
“I was terrified of seeking help because I was afraid that a white therapist could not possibly understand the deep cultural and familial aspect of the trauma I carried. After all, it was not so long ago that my sexuality was characterized as a mental illness. I can still remember the many times my mother told me not to tell anyone outside our family about what happened behind closed doors because Americans simply do not understand how Chinese parents raise their children and because social services would take me away.”
Luo went on to express the importance of empowering communities to define what “mental help” means for themselves and also to express gratitude for the support TEAM has received from the Hoppe & Grace Initiative.
That is why it is so important that foundations like Hope & Grace support organizations like TEAM, which seeks to find new and innovative ways like this video contest to engage our own communities on this hard and arduous work de-stigmatizing mental difference. In response to that man’s question, I do not know that communities of color stigmatize mental health more. What I do know is that the traditional ways about thinking about mental health were not created with us in mind.”
“The message I’m trying to send with my video is that trauma and healing never occurs in a vacuum, that it is deeply tied to the political and historical forces that created the trauma in the first place.
You can watch Luo’s award winning video right here.
National Director of Strategic Partnerships, Katrina Gay, was on hand to explain the important work that NAMI does as well as the challenges that mental health advocates are facing this year alone.
“NAMI works night and day to bring hope and help to others,” says Gay. “We do this together with our NAMI affiliates state organizations and national efforts to provide no cost support and education to those in need. We raise awareness, we host walks events, we raise vital funds and we demonstrate that we don’t want anyone to be alone in their own fight.
“As unbelievable as it may seem in this day and age, far too many still do not have access to the treatment and support that they need when they need it. Too many remain uninsured or underinsured or do not have access to the help that they need. They fail to reach out because we still sometimes just don’t know how. We don’t know how to help ourselves, sometimes. We don’t know how to help others, or we just can’t. Because for many sadly there is just nothing there. Or the obstacles of our depression, our psychosis, our mood disorder, our family members’ psychosis and mood disorder are just too overwhelming for us to really deal with.”
“While we make great progress due in large part to NAMI members and others unfailing advocacy efforts, this progress is at huge risk today. This week, policy makers in Washington actually explore health care legislation that will threaten to eliminate mental health care. It’s kind of shocking and will put millions of people at risk. Perhaps this is the worst stigma of all, institutional stigma. We deserve better.”
Gay went on to observe the progress that mental health has made in terms of finally being a topic of discussion.
“Perhaps it is the transparency of social media that tells us to share or perhaps it’s because we really can’t hide anymore. Or maybe, maybe I prefer to think it’s because we don’t want to hide anymore. We want to hear and we want to be our most authentic selves. And that mental health is a cause whose time has finally come.”
If mental health is indeed a cause whose time has finally come, it is encouraging to know that there are advocacy groups such as Hope & Grace, NAMI, and TEAM just to name a few, working tirelessly to help make the journey toward healing, a successful one. As Zelda Williams noted in her closing remarks, “Everyone is fighting a battle with something, whether you can see it or not, but it doesn’t mean you have to fight it alone.”
Since it’s founding back in 2014, the Hope & Grace Initiative has awarded approximately $3,000,000 to 48 US mental health organizations to date. To learn more about the charitable division of Philosophy please visit their site.
All photography courtesy of Michael Bezjian