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To Write Love on Her Arms Founder Opens Up About His Own Mental Health Journey

TWLOHA interview

It started with a story on Myspace about a young woman who needed help. Now it’s an organization that helps people around the world dealing with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. With a dedicated staff of around 25, To Write Love on Her Arms lets people know — through encouragement and treatment — that they’re not alone.

We sat down with the founder, Jamie Tworkowski, to talk about World Suicide Prevention Day and their latest campaign.

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This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What’s the message that To Write Love on Her Arms wants the community to hear, especially today?

Every year, for the last several years, we’ve built a campaign around a statement, so this year’s statement would probably be the best answer to your question: “Stay. Find what you were made for.” Stay to think about a bigger story and what you were made for. And even if it’s a really difficult moment, or season, or chapter in your story, you could stay alive to see things change.

Obviously when you think about suicide and when you think about someone struggling to the point of wondering if they can or should keep going, the biggest, single thing we want to say to that person would be to stay.

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We love to invite people to think about that part of it as well. We believe in hope, and healing, and redemption, and surprises. So, not just staying to suffer. Not just staying to struggle, but staying to think about your dreams and what you hope this life can turn into.

How did the Stay campaign come about?

Every year when it comes time to choose a statement, we kick around a handful of options. This came from an excerpt of a book called “When Hope Speaks.” It’s actually written by a former intern of ours, a girl named Jessica Morris who lives in Australia. We shared an excerpt on our blog and that was just a statement that had resonated.

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Speaking of your organization, how did the vision start and how has it evolved?

Our beginning was definitely a surprising one. It was not intended to become a charity back in 2006.

I was introduced to a girl named Renee Yohe. When I met her, she was struggling with the issues that as an organization we speak to today. When I met her, she was dealing with drug addiction, depression, self-injury. We later learned that she had attempted suicide previously. And I had the privilege of sharing part of her story in a written story that was given the title, “To Write Love on Her Arms.” And essentially that story went viral.

2006 was the beginning of social media becoming normal. It was kind of the start of the Myspace era, and so I gave the story a home on Myspace. Then we started to sell T-shirts as a way to [help] pay for Renee’s treatment.

The story took on a life of its own, and the T-shirts did the same. A couple of months later, I quit my job and decided to jump into this full time. It felt like something too special to walk away from.

So that’s our beginning. Now 16 of us are full-time staff, with interns and freelancers who bring us to a team of 25. There’s always another seven or eight interns who come to us from all over the world. We continue to talk about these issues. Continue to let people know if they struggle they’re not alone. We continue to let people know it’s okay to be honest.

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And more than anything, to let people know it’s okay to ask for help. And with that we get to give money to treatment and counseling, and we get to do our best to connect people to resources.

Is there a moment in the past few months, or year, that really stands out in your mind where you said to yourself, ‘Wow! I’m so glad I quit my other job and chose this path’?

Honestly, it’s the same moment that happens every so often — just meeting someone who says that they’re still alive because of To Write Love on Her Arms. Maybe that’s a tweet or a comment on Instagram. Maybe it’s a conversation face to face at a college event.

That’s something that for me really never gets old. It’s hard to imagine something more special or more humbling, to meet someone who’s standing in front of you (and they’ll say they may not be standing in front of you if it weren’t for To Write Love on Her Arms).

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And depending on the time we have, people can unpack their experience of finally getting help, or opening up to a friend or a family member — but those are the moments that remind me and remind our team what’s at stake and why this whole thing is such a privilege.

That’s truly amazing. In relation to the topic of mental health, we also came across a report that shows more Americans are living with anxiety, depression, and stress right now. What do you think could be contributing to this?

I think there’s a lot of reasons [leading to the report]. Obviously there’s a lot of uncertainty. You look at our president. You look at the talk around North Korea. Climate change. The idea of whether we’re all still going to be here tomorrow. It’s certainly one that could cause anxiety. And then add that on top of people’s everyday challenges and stresses of work and providing for a family.

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I do think we live in a unique time, certainly in this moment politically. We wake up to new challenges and difficult headlines pretty much every day right now, and so it makes sense if you’re a person who feels things that you’re going to feel the weight of that.

From an insider’s perspective, how do you think we can bridge the gap so more people understand what living with depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness is like?

In general, something that we love to point out (and this isn’t even an idea I came up with) is that the brain is part of the body. Mental health shouldn’t be treated differently than physical health.

Because when you think about it, almost every condition, or illness, or broken bone is invisible unless someone shows you an X-ray. When someone is sick, or when something is going on internally, we don’t ask for proof.

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I’m someone who struggles with depression. And I think it tends to affect our life in a lot of different ways. Depression, and anxiety, can affect eating habits and sleeping habits that can cause you to isolate. You can take someone who used to be very social or extroverted and when they’re in a season of depression, it may cause them to just want to be alone. Mental health can change behaviors drastically.

Right.

So we dream about a day in which mental health does not have an asterisk, when it can be viewed as treatable as something as simple as the flu or something as terrible as cancer — the bottom line is if someone needs help, they would be able get the help that they need.

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Recently, a woman had written a note to her office saying she was taking time off for her mental health. Her boss responded, ‘This is amazing. More people should do this.’ What do you think of that?

I actually did not see that story, but I love it. I absolutely do. If someone was fighting a cold or the flu, everyone would understand that person staying home until they were well. So I love the idea of mental health days or of people in workplaces prioritizing mental health.

We’re made up of a staff and at times it’s a really cool challenge for us just to live out our message. We have folks (myself included) who leave the office once a week to go to counseling maybe in the middle of the day. We love to celebrate that. It may be inconvenient for the workday, or for certain meetings or projects, but we’re saying this deserves to be a priority.

And the idea is if you support an employee to be healthy, in general they’re going to do better work for you. It’s a win for everyone. So even if you’re an employer and you don’t really understand mental health, you can at least understand, “I want my employees to be healthy enough to produce.”

And how do you help yourself if you’re experiencing anxiety or depression one day, or going through a period?

I’ve taken antidepressants for several years now. That’s something that happens every day. No matter how I’m feeling, I take something before I go to sleep.

I tend to refer to them as seasons. I’ve had several different seasons of going to counseling, and typically that’s once a week for an hour a week. That’s something that tends to be a little more circumstantial, but if I’m struggling, I’ve learned that probably the best thing I can throw at my depression is for me to sit with a counselor once a week and have that time to process things and talk about how I’m feeling.

TWLOHA interview

And then beyond that, I’ve learned the value of self-care, and some of that’s extremely simple. Getting enough sleep at night. Getting exercise. Doing things that make me smile, and those things are obviously different for everyone. For me it might be surfing or playing with my nephews.

And maybe another thing would be relationships. We believe that people need other people, and so for me that means having honest conversations with friends and family members in general, but especially when I’m struggling.

Thank you for sharing that. So many people will find your advice valuable. What’s the biggest thing that a mental health community, and people in general, can do to help your organization and others?

There are a number of ways to answer that. Certainly we are fans of breaking the silence, because there is such a stigma that surrounds mental health and there’s such a stigma that keeps this conversation from happening.

We hope that the Stay campaign and this day [World Suicide Prevention Day] can get people talking, but beyond that, we’re trying to raise money for people to get the help that they need.

We’ve set this goal of raising $100,000 that’s going to turn into scholarship dollars for people who need counseling or need treatment but can’t afford it. There’s totally value in the talking and communicating, but we love that we’re also going to invest in making sure people get help.

Our website has a lot of information about our campaign and the fundraising aspect around World Suicide Prevention Day. We’re selling packs, which has a T-shirt, stickers, and a poster… really everything we can give someone to bring this campaign and conversation to their community.

This day is much bigger than just our organization. We work really hard on our campaign, but we’re also aware that so many people who work in mental health and suicide prevention are doing their part to acknowledge September 10 and also here, in America, National Suicide Prevention Week.

Well, thank you so much, Jamie. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us, and we’re really excited to share your story with the Healthline community.

I’m super honored by that and super grateful. Thank you so much.

Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #IWasMadeFor. You can also learn more about the campaign by visiting To Write Love on Her Arms or by watching the video below:

Suicide prevention:

If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  • Stay with the person until help arrives.
  • Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  • Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.

If you think someone is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

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