From past to present, we celebrate advocates who made indelible contributions to their communities concerning mental health.
“For nearly 30 years—most of my adult life—I have struggled with depression and anxiety,” Andrew Solomon wrote for The New York Times during the coronavirus shutdowns in April 2020. “While I’ve never felt alone in such commonplace afflictions—the family secret everyone shares—I now find I have more fellow sufferers than I could have ever imagined.”
As he explained, COVID-19 was a double-edged crisis. While many were focused on the virus’s implications for physical health, fewer adequately addressed the fact that it would also have repercussions for our mental health. The second is a conversation that we must continue going into 2021 and the coming years, as individuals, communities, and nations.
While 2020 was a difficult year, it was also a time when people came together to help each other. This fall, the World Health Organization (WHO) hosted their first-ever online advocacy event for mental health, bringing together activists, world leaders, and celebrities to highlight one of the most critical issues affecting global health. Taraji P. Henson started a new mental health series on Facebook Watch. Andrew Solomon shared his experiences and lent comfort to those experiencing depression for the first time.
Throughout the last few months, as people and organizations navigated discussions about mental health and came together to find solutions, many of us looked to the people who paved the way over the last half-century, from lawyers to writers, for guidance and insight. Below, we celebrate just a handful of advocates, past and present, who made indelible contributions to their communities and helped shift the conversation around mental health.
1. Andrew Solomon
In 2001, Andrew Solomon published The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, his tour de force book on depression, featuring autobiographical elements, as well as interviews with individuals, doctors, scientists, policymakers, and more. Today, he’s a leading writer and lecturer on psychology, politics, and the arts, as well as a mental health advocate and LBGT rights activist.
Photographer Jennifer Weisbord created this portrait of Andrew Solomon the same year The Noonday Demon hit the shelves. “I remember being excited about the juxtaposition of the way Andrew was dressed against Lady Mendl’s Tea and Inn,” she tells us. “I didn’t know much about Andrew at the time, only that he had come out of a depression and had written a book. After meeting him, I went and read a piece of his in The New Yorker and remember thinking, ‘He’s brilliant.’ Mental health stories are so important. They were then, and they are now.”
Solomon has devoted much of his life to the importance of sharing these stories out loud. “It was not easy laying myself so bare, and it hasn’t always been a comfortable situation,” he once told PBS. “But I believe that the stigma attached to mental illness is making it harder and worse for people who are ill. And, the best way to break down that stigma is for those who can to make public declarations about their struggles.”
2. Taraji P. Henson
The actor, entrepreneur, author, and mental health advocate Taraji P. Henson is the founder of The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, a non-profit named after her father and built on a commitment to changing perceptions of mental illness within the African-American community. In addition to providing mental health support in schools, encouraging people to seek help, and working to reduce the prison recidivism rate, the organization aims to boost the number of African-American therapists through scholarships.
Beyond her work at The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, Henson now heads up a new series on Facebook Watch called Peace of Mind With Taraji, where she and Tracie Jade, the Executive Director of the Foundation, speak with experts and celebrities about mental health issues, awareness, and advocacy.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” the actor told the Associated Press in October, after being honored by the Ruderman Family Foundation for her work in combating the stigma surrounding mental health. “Tell someone. Your vulnerability is actually your strength.”
3. Elyn Saks
“I did not make my illness public until relatively late in life, and that’s because the stigma against mental illness is so powerful that I didn’t feel safe with people knowing,” Elyn Saks, a law professor at USC, said in a 2012 TED Talk. “If you hear nothing else today, please hear this: There are not ‘schizophrenics.’ There are people with schizophrenia, and these people may be your spouse. They may be your child. They may be your neighbor. They may be your friend. They may be your coworker.”
As a young woman, Saks was diagnosed with schizophrenia and told her prognosis was “grave.” Today, she’s a Chair Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry at the USC Gould School of Law, a leading voice in mental health law, and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.”
In 2007, she published her groundbreaking memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. The book encouraged others with the same diagnosis to speak up and participate in research projects. The money she earned from the MacArthur grant went into the founding of the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics.
4. Chris Sizemore
“Chris Sizemore is the woman on whom the 1957 movie The Three Faces of Eve was based,” photographer David Longstreath tells us. He created this portrait in 1983, after Sizemore had gone public with her story and diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. In the 1970s, her personalities were unified, and she spent much of the rest of her life as a painter and an advocate for others with mental health challenges.
Longstreath made this photo while working as a news photographer for the Daily Oklahoman. Sizemore was preparing to give a lecture in Oklahoma City at the time. “The mental health aspect is something that has drawn me back to this image over time,” the photographer tells us. “I am a thirty-year wire service photographer. If you visit my website, you will see several posts along with photos of my duty in the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, and the Asian Tsunami.’
“After the first Gulf War, I was diagnosed with PTSD from all the stress and war images I made in Kuwait. The scale of death I saw and photographed during the Asian Tsunami, however, was never treated. I have thought about Chris Sizemore as I, too, often feel like there are numerous demons living in my brain.”
Like Sizemore, Longstreath has also been able to build a peaceful and serene life with family. He tells us, “I am retired now, living in Chiang Mai, Thailand in a quiet community with two of my three Thai children.”
5.Kay Redfield Jamison
In 1995, the clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison published her stunning memoir An Unquiet Mind about her experiences living with manic depressive illness—now known as bipolar disorder—revolutionizing the field in the process.
“I was first told that I had manic depressive illness, as it was called then, when I was in my mid-twenties, when I saw a psychiatrist for the first time,” she’d later reflect. “I had trained clinically, and when he said that I had manic depressive illness, I was both terrified and relieved, but I also knew that what he said was true.”
By the time she wrote the book, she was already one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject and a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Today, she’s the director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center and the author of several landmark books. She’s devoted much of her life to battling the stigma around mental illness and encouraging early treatment and education.
6. Demi Lovato
For much of her time in the public eye, actor and singer Demi Lovato has helped erase the stigma around mental health issues by discussing her own experiences, as well as mentoring others living with mental health challenges. In April of 2020, she helped launch The Mental Health Fund to help those struggling during the Covid-19 pandemic. Brian Ach photographed Lovato in 2017 amid the promotion of her new album, Tell Me You Love Me, during which time the star also hosted wellness sessions for fans before select performances.
“I do a lot of celebrity portraits, both in studio and on site, and I was assigned to shoot this portrait of Demi by Invision/AP,” the photographer remembers. “Demi is a great performer, super voice, and a fierce personality. I had covered her at events and in concert before, but this was the first time I had shot a portrait.’
“Demi is friendly and direct—just how I like it! Usually, I don’t have much time with subjects, and this was no different—probably less than ten minutes max. The one thing about Demi is that when you actually get down to business and start shooting, she takes direction and is completely present. Not distracted, not thinking about something else, but totally there in the moment. It’s great, and it’s just how she is as a performer and human being.’
“The thing about mental health, mental healthcare, and mental health awareness that needs to change is the fact that unlike other diseases, there is a stigma surrounding it. Everything is hush hush and whispers and sidelong glances, gossip columns and torch articles. This needs to stop. The problem with mental health is that we don’t talk about mental health. It is a self-perpetuating cycle. Mental health conditions are treatable through many different therapies. I have had my own mental health issues through my time on earth, and sometimes all it takes is someone to listen to you. It’s time we all listen.”
7. Brandon Marshall
Former NFL football player Brandon Marshall has spoken out about the importance of mental health for a decade, starting when he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder while receiving treatment at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. It was then that he realized, in his own words, that football wasn’t his purpose but his platform.
“It’s cool scoring touchdowns,” he told the Associated Press Pro Football Podcast in November. “It’s cool making it to the NFL. That was an amazing journey. But, when you are in a position to potentially save a life, that’s a phenomenal experience.”
Today, Marshall speaks often about mental health. Along with his wife Michi, he’s also the founder of Project 375, a foundation promoting awareness and eradicating the stigma. “When my NFL career is over, I will have left a legacy on the field—one that hopefully includes a Super Bowl ring,” he wrote for the Players’ Tribune in 2017. “But, my most enduring legacy will be my contributions to the mental health community.”
8. Rosalynn Carter
Rosalynn Carter has been an advocate for mental health for more than fifty years, beginning when her husband was Governor of Georgia, continuing through her time as First Lady of the United States, and until today. Her lifelong passion for advocacy began in 1966, when she happened to meet a woman working at a cotton mill while also caring for her daughter, who had mental health challenges. That same night, she asked her husband what he was doing to address mental health issues.
In her role as honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, Carter was instrumental in the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, a landmark legislation providing grants for community health centers. Five years later, she launched the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy. By 1996, she’d created the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental illness. In 2010, she released her book Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis.
9. Donna and Phillip Satow
Since the death of their youngest son Jed in 1998, Donna and Phillip Satow have worked to prevent suicide, which remains a leading cause of death among young adults. The Jed Foundation, launched in 2000 in Jed’s honor, is now one of the leading mental health organizations in the nation.
Their goals are for every high school and college to have a comprehensive system to support emotional health, to equip teens and young adults to navigate mental health challenges and seek help, and to see mental health recognized as part of general health and wellness, free from shame or secrecy.
Learn even more about how imagery can help fight stigma about mental and physical heath issue.
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- What It’s Really Like to Live with HIV: A Collaboration with ViiV Healthcare
- Why Documenting Complex Subjects is Important to Stock Photography
- Coping with Crisis: Ways to Maintain Your Creativity and Mental Health
Cover image via Everett/Shutterstock.