The inclusion of mental health as part of the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations is yet another proof of the crucial role that mental wellbeing plays in achieving greater societal change. Although many countries have come a long way in their support for mental health awareness and education, the gap between those who are able to provide the necessary medical attention and those who are still struggling remains wide.
In a recent interview, conducted to celebrate World Mental Health Day, we spoke to Stephanie Johnson, Executive Director of LTY Foundation, and Dan Kanceljak, Chief Outreach Officer of Letters to Strangers, to learn how their organizations are impacting the lives of the most vulnerable, one day at a time.
First, let us try to understand what mental health is and how we may define the different aspects that comprise this idea.
Stephanie: Mental health is, essentially, what we are doing in our day-to-day lives in our environments, how we’re being raised, how we’re being socialized. It is what is personally happening to us continuously over time that impacts how our brain is trained and subsequently how our mind then conceives and perceives that information, which consequently relates to how we think about ourselves, how we feel over time, and ultimately how we behave.
Being a mental health professional also gets so generalized sometimes, as if we only treat anxiety, depression, or suicide. This leads people to form narrow or distorted notions of what mental health truly is.
What motivated you and your non-profit to work for so many programs?
Dan: Specifically, in regard to Letters to Strangers, the initiation of the whole organization and everything that it has become today goes to our Executive Director, Diana Chao. When she was younger, she struggled with bipolar disorder, which led her to find healing in the act of letter writing. In particular, writing to someone “out there”, a stranger.
Year by year, Letters to Strangers grew as an organization and spread into other areas, such as advocacy, education, interventions, and several other subfields. And ultimately, we realized that a holistic approach was necessary for helping others improve their mental health. That is why, today, we are focusing on educational approaches as much as more “directly” therapeutic ones.
Stephanie: As a society, we have done very well at recognizing, physically, what happens to people and how we may help them achieve greater health. We’ve done a lot to learn how to repair the physical body and subsequently provide those services to those around us. However, when it comes to mental health, we have been lagging substantially.
So, what we’re doing now, as nonprofits, is pulling a lot of weight for our societies and trying to do a lot with very little.
At this point, I would like for you to use this platform to bust certain myths surrounding mental health.
Dan: A lot of attitudes towards mental health are rooted in the fear of vulnerability. Perhaps, because there lies a subconscious belief that once you face your “shadow”, oftentimes the source of one’s stress and anxiety, you would inevitably lose your agency and start to feel overcome by this side of you. However, it is only by facing our struggles, with an open heart, that we can unleash the potential for growth hidden behind mental health struggles. In fact, this phenomenon has been dubbed by some as “Post-Traumatic Growth”, whereby after a traumatic event, an individual succeeds at not only matching their previous levels of wellbeing but also exceeding them.
Stephanie: We usually start to see the formation of maladaptive behavior, psychological distress, and the development of disorders early on in life. Science has been able to track the development of particular psychiatric disorders from how much wellbeing certain individuals were lacking in their early days. That is why, it is crucial for us to get the environment, whether it be physical or social, to be healthy and growth-inducing. For that is how we start to interact with the world around us and be interwoven within it.
What are the different ways that people can associate and become a volunteer for your non-profit?
Dan: There are many ways. On one hand, they can become part of our “Chapter Network.” In India, for instance, we now have 12 chapters. People are welcome to initiate the 13th or become part of one of the existing ones. That said, they could also take part in our letter-writing communities, where people come together, exchange letters, and discuss them in a safe and comfortable setting. Today, they may even do so online, as we have built a letter-exchange platform. That’s one way they could contribute to the healing of their community, too. Apart from this, they may also write for our blog, where we publish articles that touch upon many different dimensions and components of mental health.
Stephanie: I’m looking for people who are interested in helping us build a program and bring more attention to the needs of those individuals who are exceptional. Someone who may be of high cognition but also may have a psychiatric or developmental disorder or learning disability. We’re interested in people who might have been those kids or may have been close to them, so they could help us identify their often-overlooked needs and how we might be able to accommodate them.
What is a message that you would like to share with potential volunteers?
Dan: I hope that whoever will be watching or reading this conversation can take some wisdom from it. And if they end up feeling incentivized, I would urge them to contact either Letter to Strangers or Lee Thompson Young Foundation and put their heart out. For it is true that mental health work, both personal and interpersonal, involves a lot of vulnerability, but it is only when we approach our vulnerability that we can truly capture our strength. Even though it might seem futile for someone to act as they are but a single voice, in the end, it only takes a single human being to start things going and commence a domino effect — wherever you might be. And so, if you decide to join us, we are here to help and support you.
Stephanie: Think about the part of you that may have gone unnoticed, that may have been shut down. Figure out whether or not that part has ever gotten the attention it needed and deserved. At the end of the day, we are all responsible for our mental health. If we can do our work, then we can connect rather naturally and intuitively to places and people that may serve us to reach our higher potential and connect with what we need.
Ultimately, only once we have helped ourselves will we be able to find ways that are authentic and organic to help others.
Mental illnesses play a significant part in the lives of millions of people in the U.S., thereby inevitably affecting their financial, social, and financial status. By the age of 14, 50% of all mental illnesses begin and by the age of 24, almost 75% will already have become a part of an individual’s life. Conversations like these help us break the taboo around the issue and show that no one is alone.
A pivotal part of this discussion with Goodera emphasizes the role that corporate volunteers play in helping those with mental health issues, highlighting how a person sitting thousands of miles away can still contribute to a cause as well as it recognizes the power of borderless virtual solutions. It was a pleasure speaking to Team Goodera and seeing the passion and unwavering commitment of the organization towards advocating for better awareness regarding mental health issues and the need for shattering any mental health-related taboos.
To get involved as a volunteer or simply, to find out more, please visit the websites of Letters to Strangers and Lee Thompson Young Foundation. To get involved as a nonprofit or other organization, please visit Goodera’s website.