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Exciting news from Geneva!
On Monday, I had the supreme honor of watching Cynthia Germanotta sit beside leaders from around the world in Geneva at the 72nd World Health Assembly and be announced as the World Health Organization’s Goodwill Ambassador for Mental Health.
Later that day, we sat eating fondue with our friends and partners at United for Global Mental Health, strategists of the Speak Your Mind campaign. Elisha London, their CEO and co-founder, turned to our team and asked, “Could you have imagined that you’d ever be here, doing this work?” Cynthia, the ever polite and humble one, answered that she was overwhelmed and so grateful. Rachel said something about our hard work and they turned to me and I said, “Yes.” I was too tired, proud, and overwhelmed in that moment to explain why I answered with such certainty but I’ve slept now and I’m headed home, seated next to the Ambassador and I’d like to better answer the question.
When I started at Born This Way Foundation, almost seven years ago, I would spend hours – even then – reading emails from Tássia in Brazil, Maria in Germany, Iggy in Japan, and Eduardo in Spain. Alongside my basic understanding of a few languages, Google Translate would help me read the impassioned stories of these young people from around the world who had found their voices, their communities, and their support through Lady Gaga’s bravery and talent. They would ask me when the foundation would come to their country and when we’d do work with and for their friends. While I didn’t have a date to give them, I’d tell them that they are part of a global movement, that we would be there soon, and that they are not alone. The first and last statements were always true and now, through the appointment of Cynthia as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Mental Health, we are closer to meeting these young people where they are so we can support them as they build the kinder, braver world they deserve.
Multiple times in Geneva, Cynthia turned to me, in crowded rooms of dignitaries, and whispered that she wants to be surrounded by young people. In these rooms, in every room. In the conversations this week, in every conversation. This new role is just the latest opportunity she will use to continue to call on young people to tell their own stories and to work tirelessly to provide them with the resources and platforms they need to share not only the challenges they face, but the solutions they know are possible.
Please join me, Lady Gaga, and the entire Born This Way Foundation community in offering Cynthia our big, loud, and incredibly proud congratulations. If you haven’t already, follow her on Twitter @MomGerm, on Instagram @CynthiaBTWF, and on Facebook @CynthiaGermanotta to tell her the changes you want to see in mental health and to stay posted as she gets to work as the WHO’s new Goodwill Ambassador for Mental Health!
Today’s blog discusses suicide which may be triggering to survivors or to the family and/or friends of victims. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please seek help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day or reach out to one of the other resources listed below for assistance.
Today’s blog also discusses grief and loss. Please visit Bo’s Place, which connects you with a variety of resources for helping those who have lost someone in their life.
Mother’s Day is mostly a celebration. It’s a day where we honor our mothers and mother figures who have birthed us, raised us, sacrificed for us, guided us, and/or helped us in any way. I also know that day can be complicated for many of us.
I’m writing today for those of us who may feel joy but also some pain on this holiday. My boss encourages us to be brave and share our stories. And at Born This Way Foundation, we believe speaking our truths not only help the people sharing, but also those who are silently relating – not yet ready to speak out themselves.
My husband and I have an ongoing, morbid argument in our home about how long it should take a person to die. His father died by suicide – quickly, devastatingly and while our family knew he had been suffering, no one woke up that day knowing that they’d lose George but by mid-afternoon, the world had cracked open and he was gone. For me, my heart skips a beat every time my little brother calls and I instinctively keep my phone close to my bed while I sleep because we’ve had practice with late night emergencies and dozens of nights in the hospital. My mother has multiple system atrophy, a rare, complicated disease that causes her autonomic and nervous system to slowly, but surely, shut down. I’ve never experience the kind of grief and trauma that Dave (my husband) has because my mom is – technically – still here.
This presents a hard to explain, painful balance for me on Mother’s Day, Grandma Day at preschool, when I’m at a loss for how to comfort a crying child, or when I want to celebrate the milestones that seem to happen every day in a house filled with two beautiful, hilarious, and adventurous babies. I am simultaneously heartbroken, and grateful. There are many blogs about the holes that those days and those experiences create in our lives, especially this weekend. For me, it’s also especially hard to take long drives, to get in arguments, to go to Starbucks, and to see airplane cutlery.
My mom immigrated to this country from Communist Romania to start a family in a community that valued choice, democracy, freedom, and rebellion. She was obsessed with my brother and me and if part of the recipe to a successful life is to know, deep down to your core, that you are loved then we are going to be OK because Duncan and I have that in spades. I spoke to her at least 5 times a day, from when I got my first pager and would call her back collect from pay phones around town debating curfews, to when I moved across the country to California to chase love. My phone and my time, even years after she lost the ability to use a phone unassisted, feels empty.
She and I were so alike, a funny fact that is repeating itself with my own four-year-old firecracker of a daughter, and we were both stubborn, opinionated, prideful, and biting with our words. We would argue – all the time – about things big and little and the arguments would end when I stormed off, without resolution, exhausted, and impressed by her commitment to continuing the mental jiu-jitsu of a trained psychoanalyst. She would come into my room or call me at the conclusion of each of our fights and tell me, especially as she was starting to get ill, that arguing releases endorphins and drives our adrenaline so we had both just done something really great for our bodies. I would roll my eyes and continue to stew, but I’d give anything to argue with her.
I was in high school when the Starbucks in the town next to ours opened. She and I would go every day that I didn’t have to be in school and she wasn’t with a patient. She was known to all of the baristas; they would come up to her and whisper about their marital problems or job woes and seek her pro bono mental health support. She would order a grande dry cappuccino and she would put her elbows on the bar, getting as close to the barista preparing her drink as she could, and direct them on their foam to espresso ratio. I would stand as far away from her as possible, so embarrassed by her violation of personal space but grateful for the free Frappuccino. Today, I walk into a Starbucks every single day of my life and I order a grande, dry cappuccino and I resist the urge to ask the baristas to hold the heavier-than-should-be cup when they hand a poorly prepared drink to me. I drink the mistakes, wish I was as bold as my mom, and make a mental note to not let Stephen make it next time because he just doesn’t take the dry request seriously enough for me.
Lastly, I was on a plane a couple days ago, as I often am for my work, and when I was served breakfast, I started to cry. It’s common and Delta is patient with me but my mom took us around the world – she showed us everything from Liechtenstein to the Louvre to Magic Mountain. On every flight home, she’d sit behind us, drink gin and tonics, and promise to never take us anywhere again because we had bickered too much and yet, there we went – on more adventures. I’m not sure how my brother passed the ethics portion of the bar because she’d also steal everything that wasn’t nailed down on the plane. At home, we’d eat with tiny Lufthansa forks, watch TV while nestled in Air France blankets, and sip coffee from those stackable, plastic KLM cups. She specialized in living as both entitled American measuring out dollops of foam in her cappuccino and thrifty immigrant, unsure of when she’d be in a situation where a tri-fold plastic airline escape postcard would come in handy.
I am waking up this morning – on Mother’s Day – the mother of two beautiful, hilarious children, married to a man that loves me and tolerates my Alina-like behaviors (all the way down to the airplane theft) and I am preparing for a trip to Switzerland, one of my Mom’s favorite places, to present my work eliminating the stigma around mental health (work that I do because of her) to the World Health Organization. She may not know all of these things but they are because of her so Ma, Happy Mother’s Day. Thanks for the adventures, the love, the confidence, the jokes, the strength, the bravery, the memories, and the family.
I hope reading my story helps you make space to reflect on and process your own, and maybe even share it. I promise, it helps.
Our latest report, Youth Mental Health in America: Understanding Resource Availability and Preferences, is here and reading these young people’s stories reminds me so much of my own experience growing up.
In the kitchen of my childhood home, we had a phone on the wall with a long cord. It rang all day and I would sit on the stairs next to the kitchen twisting the rubber through my fingers and talking to my friends about everything from our classes and teachers to if Devon Sawa was hotter than Jonathan Taylor Thomas (he’s not, in case you’re wondering). If my parents tried to make a call, the phone would click and I would sigh and say, “Mommmm, I’m on the phone.”
One weekend morning the phone rang and it was one of my closest friends. She had decided to run away and she was calling from a pay phone in the Hoboken train station. She told me she only saw two ways out, running away or ending her life. This was not the conversation that I was used to having on those brown-carpeted stairs and I did not know what to tell her. I put the phone down, making her promise to hold on, and I got my mom. I sat next to my mom while she calmly listened, firmly spoke, and collaboratively problem solved. My friend returned home, and she is alive and thriving today.
I am fortunate to be the daughter of a psychoanalyst, a woman who listened non-judgmentally and a woman who – though she may have closed the door to her bedroom and cried many nights about the conversations she had to have with me and with my friends – showed up every day to listen, share, and connect.
This week, Born This Way Foundation released our latest research which you can read in full detail here. It can be easy to make assumptions about how young people are feeling or what they need, but we believe the only way to actually know is to ask youth themselves. So that’s what we did. We asked more than 2,000 young people ages 13 to 24 across the country to tell us about their own perceptions of their mental health as well as their access to and opinions about a variety of mental health resources. And here are three facts that stand out most to me:
- One in three young people don’t have reliable access to the resources they need to maintain their mental health.
- When asked what barriers are stopping them from accessing those resources, nearly half (47%) of young people said they don’t know where to go to find them.
- Far too many young people are unprepared for common but serious and potentially life threatening situations, with 48% of young people saying they would not have the resources needed if they felt suicidal.
This hits home for me, not just because of that call more than two decades ago, but also because of the young people I meet and talk to every single day. I know young people value their mental health – our survey agrees with nearly 90% of respondents reporting mental health is a priority – and I know they want to help themselves and each other, both in times of crisis and proactively every day. The conversation my mom had sitting on those carpeted steps was the urgent and hopeful one my friend needed in that moment and is the same type of conversation young people today need to be able to have with people who are trusted and prepared.
I want to tell you about this research both because I am proud of it as the Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation and because I believe in listening to young people, asking them to solve the problems they are facing by imagining the world they want to live in, and then leveraging every platform, relationship, and network I have to help them achieve that vision. I know that when tasked with addressing the mental health crisis in our country and in our world, young people are and will continue to rise to the challenge and rely on their resilience, passion, collaboration, and lived experience.
I also want to tell you about this research (and ask that you share it, far and wide). As a mother, daughter, wife, aunt, friend, and neighbor, I can only hope my daughter will hand me the phone one day and I’ll be able to support her in the same way my mom supported me. And until then (she’s three), I want you to know the members of the Born This Way Foundation team bring each of our roles to work with us each day and we do this work for ourselves and for each other – for deeply personal and important professional reasons. We are committed to amplifying and sharing stories, modeling and supporting conversations, and building and supporting resources and solutions and I know I speak for all of us when I say it is our privilege to do this work and to share this important research.
Maya Smith is Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation
I am a glass half full type of person, I’ve always been. I thought I was more popular than I was, I thought the yellow plaid pants I got on a family trip to Italy were trend-setting and catwalk worthy and even in the face of naysayers and pessimists, and I believe wholeheartedly in the power young people have to change the world.
For the next two years, I get to run around Las Vegas armed with those beliefs and my glass half full personality. As we prepared for last week’s launch of our programming in Las Vegas, I’ve been talking to young people, about young people, and with young people and I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of abundance and how we view it and leverage it differently.
Last week, Team Born This Way Foundation had the opportunity to connect with local organizations, host a strategy breakfast to introduce our work and also tour the homes of some high impact non-profits making a different in the lives of young people. In a couple of those inter-generational meetings, comments have come up that made me laugh – and think. The story of a young woman, eager to move up the ladder in her corporate job asking the boss how to get her job and when. The boss telling me this heard a story about a young woman’s sense of entitlement, but I heard a story about an abundance of confidence. An education leader cautioning us about the use of technology for young people and the inevitable erosion of the face-to-face social fabric that connects us. I assured him that my generation would manage to leverage technology to build social ties and go to the movies with our classmates – we have an abundance of ways to connect and communicate.
When I gave the closing remarks of a non-profit convening, in the beautiful private dining room of the Park MGM, and saw an abundance of delicious food (shout out to the avocado toast #Millennials) I asked for to go containers so that these non-profit leaders could take this delicious food back to the young people they serve, some of whom would eat their first and only meal of the day from those containers. That morning, we had an abundance of food. I know that my vantage point is one steeped in privilege and in the true comfort of having never known scarcity in any form. But it is because I’ve never experienced what so many of the young people that I work with experience, that I am constantly and obsessively searching for abundance in all of its forms and ways to share and defend it.
I’m just following my boss’ lead. At the end of her fabulous Enigma show, Lady Gaga told the crowd: “Don’t leave here loving me more, leave here loving yourself more.” She wanted to share the abundance of love and support she felt from the audience that night, not hoard it for herself, serving her own ego.
“Don’t leave here loving me more, leave here loving yourself more.”
– Lady Gaga
Abundance even got me in trouble, as I sat around a table with the young people from Project 150 and listened to the long list of urgent needs that they had. Their founder said the young people need toiletries and I thought of my hotel room, the hotel rooms of the people sitting around the table with me, and the hotel rooms of all the people that would fill the Park MGM Theater for Enigma. So I told our team (and the Internet) to bring toiletries to the show. As it turns out, that’s a hard and very complicated thing to execute for security and for our friends at MGM so thank you to the patient, kind team that instead of telling me “no,” smiled and said, “of course.” I want to promise you that I won’t do it again but I can’t, because I will. We all will. This is what the Born This Way Foundation team came to Las Vegas to do.
Las Vegas is a city of abundance; an abundance of bright lights, an abundance of delicious restaurants that I am committed to trying, an abundance of discretionary money won and devastating money lost, and an abundance of talent and entertainment and noise. It is also a city with an abundance of passionate community members and energized non-profit and civic leaders. In the short time we’ve been in Las Vegas so far, I am happy to report that the most abundant resource in Las Vegas – by far – is the passion, energy, and vision of the young people that call this city home.
Maya Smith is Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation
As my husband and son watched the Rose Bowl and my daughter napped, I sat on my couch with a new sketch book and traced the letters of the words I write most often – Be Kind – in pencil first and then in a permanent, black marker. Under the words, I wrote and underlined three categories; myself, my family, and the world and stared at the empty columns hoping that some brilliance would come to me. The brilliance has not come yet, so I’m writing this blog and hoping that by sharing my intention and inviting you to share yours, we can fill pages together.
Last month during one of our staff meetings, my colleague Aysha told me about the Find Your Anchor box. It’s a box literally filled with kind messages, affirmations, and positive images. The goal of this organization is to erase suicide and ensure that everyone is able to establish an anchor, which they define as “a dependable, stable, secure base that you can hold onto, one that keeps you firmly planted, no matter what winds or storms may come.” I fell in love with the concept, found my next tattoo (I’m sorry, Mom), and ordered two. I brought one with me to Las Vegas last week and carried it around with me everywhere I went, hoping to find someone who needed it more than I did. In each interaction, personal and professional, I asked people how they were, how they were feeling, and how their friends and family were doing. In both blatant and awkward ways and in more subtle and rehearsed ways, I wanted to know about the anchors in the lives of the people around me.
Marques was one of my drivers in Las Vegas. Before we even met, he texted me to ask me if I wanted to coffee, happily shuffled locations as my meetings ran over, arrived 15 minutes early, and on a particularly hectic day when we first met, his bright smile and kind spirit stopped me in my tracks. I sat down in the passenger seat, breathing a sigh of relaxation as he drove me to my next meeting. We chatted about his time in Las Vegas, his childhood outside of Los Angeles and he asked me questions about my work and my family. As most conversations between parents during the holidays go, I shared the story of my children on Christmas morning discovering their new hot wheels next to the Christmas tree. My heart was warmed by the memory and I invited Marques to share his Christmas morning story with his two daughters. “I didn’t see them on Christmas, I wasn’t OK” he answered, teetering on emotion for the first time and trying to change the subject. I gently pressed and invited him to share if he wanted to. Marques wanted to, so he bravely shared his difficult childhood, his often uncontrollable anger, his undeniable and overwhelming love for his daughters and his wife, and his difficult journey to become the type of man that he feels they deserve. Through tears, honesty and bravery, he shared an unimaginably difficult story with me as well as his recent decision to share his journey at work (thankfully met with support and understanding) and seek treatment. Marques didn’t know how the story would end but he knew – for the first time in a long time – that he wouldn’t end his story and that he’d keep fighting.
As Marques sat next to me trembling and crying while still expertly navigating the Las Vegas interstate, I rifled through my purse and opened up the Find Your Anchor box. I took out the note that read, “You are loved, Maya” and wrote, “You are loved, Marques” and handed him the box. I told him that I had been holding onto this box, from New York to California and now Las Vegas, and wanted to give it to someone who needed to be reminded of their anchor, of their strength, and of the need the world has for them. I got out of the car, hugged Marques, and went to yet another meeting – one Find Your Box lighter and one connection stronger.
Far too many people believe that no one wants to hear their stories, that people will fear their stories, and that people will judge their stories. I wasn’t out-of-the-ordinary kind to Marques, I’m so grateful he picked me to share with, and I am not sure how telling you his story will help with my resolution but I think the key to building a kinder and braver world is to share the beautiful stories, the difficult stories and to invest in them; to anchor ourselves in those stories and the people behind them. The key is to keep filling the pages of this story together, some days they’ll be blank or tattered and other days we’ll put hearts over the i’s and draw smiley faces, but if Marques isn’t giving up, if the team at Born This Way Foundation and I are doubling down, then join us, please.