Jamie Tworkowski is the founder of To Write Love on Her Arms, a non-profit dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide.
“The stigma begins to go away when we talk about it,” Jamie Tworkowski told me when we met in New York City. And so, we talked about it—“it” being mental illness.
Tworkowski didn’t necessarily mean to start a charity. Back in 2006, he was only looking to share the story of his friend Renee who suffered from mental illness and addiction, and to sell tee shirts to help pay for her treatment. However, when he posted the story titled “To Write Love on Her Arms” on MySpace, he received a flood of messages from people who were also struggling with their mental health. The response was impossible to ignore, and it was clear that he was onto something. There were so many people out there struggling, seeking hope, looking for someone who understood—and they found it.
A year later, in 2007, To Write Love on Her Arms became an official nonprofit organization, and now, ten years later, the organization has grown leaps and bounds, while still focusing on the main message of delivering hope and help to those who need it. Since then, TWLOHA has donated more than 2 million dollars to treatment and recovery for people suffering from depression, addiction, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. Not to mention, they’ve helped countless people feel less alone.
As for Tworkowski himself, he’s come a long way since that initial MySpace post. On top of all the organization’s achievements, he became a New York Times bestselling author with his book, If You Feel Too Much. I had to opportunity to sit down with him and pick his brain about mental health and the organization.
Talkspace: So you’ve obviously dealt with loss in your life, losing someone to suicide, and then almost losing someone, your friend Renee. But do you personally suffer from any mental health issues?
Jamie Tworkowski: Yeah, I’ve struggled with depression for years, and I’m comfortable talking about that. I’ve been taking an antidepressant for 5 or 6 years now, and several seasons of counseling. Typically, that’s once a week for one hour, and I’m doing counseling right now.
A couple summers ago I went away for a week of therapy. It was like full on counseling camp. That was after a breakup when I was really struggling. So yeah, I’m definitely someone who deals with depression, and the silver lining is just feeling like I get to relate to other people who struggle. Not that our struggles are identical, but I know what it is for me to deal with depression.
TS: It’s one thing to sympathize with somebody, but it’s a whole other level when you can say, “Yeah, I’ve felt that pain.”
JT: It’s definitely something I’ve gotten really comfortable talking about. Because that’s really what we hope for other people, that they don’t feel like it has to be a secret. I want to lead by example.
TS: You’re asking everyone to share their story, it would be almost hypocritical if you didn’t.
JT: At first, when the organization started, I got comfortable encouraging other people to get help and to be honest, to reach out to friends, to know it’s okay to go to counseling. But I hadn’t taken all those steps in my own life. So I’m thankful that in the last few years I’ve been able to take my own advice.
TS: I love the “Stay: Find what you were made for” campaign. What advice do you have for people who are having trouble finding what they’re made for? How does one find their purpose?
JT: In a way, we spend our whole lives trying to figure that out. This might sound simple or hippie, but I honestly think we are made to be loved and known by other people. Sometimes we overcomplicate it with, “Where is this elusive place I belong in this career?” And it’s like, you should let some people know you and try to love people, and maybe the rest is details. Obviously there are big decisions we have to make, but I think sometimes we miss what’s right in front of us. With people who get so focused on career or success or things that are financial, you miss the idea of how much relationships matter.
So I think as I get older I just feel like the stuff I get excited for and feel like i was made for it, it tends to be relational. And there’s things I wanna do — I want to write another book, I want to be a speaker, I want to encourage people. I think I was made to do that, but I think I’m also made to be a son and a brother and an uncle and a friend. Those are things that a lot of people can relate to. So I think sometimes it doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it.
TS: So many people have a specific goal like, “I was made to do this career at this company and do this role,” and then if they don’t reach that they feel like they’re a failure.
JT: Yeah, so many things are fragile. You might get there and get fired or get there and hate it. You might get there and get sick. We only have one day at a time. I come back over and over again to relationships. My nephews don’t know if I’m successful or verified on Twitter. They just want me to love them and keep showing up. I think other people can help us figure that out too. Because when we let people know us, they can tell us what they see. Someone’s gonna remind you or tell you when you seem alive, when you seem excited. I don’t think we have to figure this stuff out completely on our own.
TS: Now that your organization is over ten years old, do you have a standout moment or milestone you hit where you were completely floored?
JT: Two things come to mind. In terms of a moment, we won a million dollars on national television. We got a fake check from Bob Costas. It was this thing that doesn’t exist anymore, but it was called the American Giving Awards and the money came from Chase Bank. It basically looked like the Oscars or the Grammys and it was in LA and there were musical guests and everyone was dressed fancy. It was just — who would’ve thought? Just the fact that it existed was wild. But to be there and to win, in terms of a moment, I don’t think we’ll ever top that. And for me, I was given 60 seconds to speak before we won. All of the five charities were given that, and to me, that was probably the thing I’m most proud of in my career. Figuring out what to say — it’s a cool question, “What would you say if you had sixty seconds and however many people watching?” Honestly for me, I think that was more special than the money. The money was great, it made a difference for that year and the couple years that followed. But to have that platform was really cool.
The other thing that happens pretty consistently is meeting people who wouldn’t otherwise be here if not for the organization. So many people say they ended up getting help as a result of To Write Love on Her Arms, or that they even ended up deciding to stay alive. So I tell people it’s hard to imagine a better thing to hear or a better exchange or conversation to have. You meet someone and you don’t know anything about them, and they say, “I’m still alive because of the work that you do,” and it’s like, oh my gosh, that’s the coolest thing in the world.
TS: You’re keeping somebody alive!
JT: Hopefully we just got to be a little part of the process you know? Because we’re not claiming ourselves or the organization or the team to be the ultimate solution. It’s pointing people back to their community, their friends, and the solutions that exist where they live. We’re not trying to be everyone’s pen pal or best friend. We want to be a source of hope and encouragement. But we love those moments, hearing what it meant or means to somebody.
TS: I feel that on a smaller scale when I write stories. When I get nice comments, it makes everything so much better. It makes it feel like you’re doing something right. That must feel amazing.
JT: In terms of finding what you were made for, I think a lot of people dream of that kind of feedback. I don’t want to take it for granted, because that’s a really special thing. And the fact that people would care enough to share it — to leave that comment or wait in a line to share that after an event.
TS: What do you think sets you apart from other mental health organizations?
JT: I love our beginning, in that it wasn’t meant to be a charity. I think that kind of set the tone. To me, a charity just means that’s how we file our taxes at the end of the year. It grew out of a story that I wrote. It was meant to be poetic and beautiful and encouraging, and I think we want to be that. We want to be those things. We want to encourage people and we want to move people. We value design, we value language, and we value good writing. We want to learn about issues and the help that exists, but we don’t spend a ton of time looking at what everyone else is doing. We’re also aware of the opportunities we have to do certain work, and not try to do what everyone else does.
I remember early on people were like, “You guys should open a treatment center!” It wasn’t necessarily a bad idea, but I was like, I don’t think we’re supposed to open a treatment center. Other people do that and do that really well, and I think our sweet spot is moving people to go to a treatment center. We’re in a unique place to meet people where they are, whether that’s social media or Warped Tour or college campuses. Everywhere we go, online and offline. We don’t feel competitive with other charities in this space or in general. There’s such a need as it relates to mental health and suicide, so we want to cheer everybody on and we want everybody to play their part and do great work.
TS: Do you think social media has changed for better or for worse since you started over 10 years ago on MySpace?
JT: Probably both. I mean, we get to see the best of social media, going back to the beginning. You can use social media for good. To Write Love on Her Arms probably wouldn’t exist without social media. It’s where we got started, and we continue to use it everyday. It allows you to bring a message of hope and help to countries we’ll never even go to physically. And with that, the other side of the coin is bullying. There’s bad ideas, there’s ignorance, there’s hate, there’s gossip. Social media is really just a platform. The more interesting piece is what you place on that platform. We want to be aware of those challenges, but we’re definitely appreciative of the good.
TS: For people who haven’t experienced mental illness themselves, what advice do you have for them to be an understanding ally?
JT: We would encourage people to learn. If you want to care for someone who’s struggling, you want to empathize and sympathize with someone, it makes sense to try to learn as much as you can about what they’re experiencing, about what life looks like or feels like. A lot of time, mental health is met with ignorance, or it’s just misunderstood. Sometimes people mean well, but they do more harm than good. People offer things that are meant to be helpful, that actually aren’t.
There’s a ton of information out there. You can learn about mental illness. If you had a family member get sick with cancer, you would probably dig in and learn as much as you could about cancer, the problems the solutions, the treatment that exists. So to me, if you’re interested in mental health and trying to care for someone who’s dealing with a mental illness, I think it makes sense to try to learn.”
“The stigma begins to go away when we talk about it.”
So let’s all be brave and talk about it, giving others permission to do the same. Then one day, maybe, this stigma will be a thing of the past.