The State of Our Mental Health: Jamie Tworkowski, To Write Love on Her Arms

Jamie Tworkowski

During Mental Health Awareness Month we’re diving into “The State of Our Mental Health” by profiling mental health leaders and discussing how they’re coping with the coronavirus outbreak. In this video, Talkspace contributor Ashley Laderer speaks with Jamie Tworkowski, founder of To Write Love on Her Arms and author of If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For. Check back each week in May as we continue the conversation and share your own videos @talkspace using #TheStateofMyMentalHealth.

Talkspace:

May is mental health month, as you know. And at Talkspace we have a campaign around the State of Our Mental Health, a video series profiling some people who are doing awesome stuff in the mental health space. We’re talking about how you are handling the pandemic, and how you are dealing with your own mental health struggles during this time.

So just to introduce everybody to you, this is Jamie. He is the founder of To Write Love on Her Arms. He is wearing the shirt. He’s also a New York Times best-selling author. It’s a great book, If You Feel Too much, highly recommended. Thank you for being here with us today.

Do you want to give a little bit of background information on yourself and your organization for people who aren’t familiar with it?

Jamie Tworkowski:

Yes. Thank you for the warm welcome and the book club. That was very clever. I didn’t know that was going to happen.

Talkspace:

It was my friend who came up with it last night.

Jamie Tworkowski:

That was awesome. My name is Jamie Tworkowski and, as you said, I’m the founder of To Write Love on Her Arms and we got our start in a surprising way all the way back in 2006. So, today it’s a nonprofit organization, but back then it was just a really simple, humble attempt to tell one story and help one person. To Write Love on Her Arms was the name of a story I wrote about getting to know a brand new friend. And she, back then was dealing with all the issues that we now speak to as an organization. So she was dealing with drug addiction, depression, a history of self-injury. And we later learned there had been suicide attempts in her life. I wrote what I hoped would be a really honest story about the five days I spent with her after she was denied entry into a treatment center.

I shared that on Myspace. Everyone, everyone’s allowed to giggle. And essentially that story went viral, kind of took on a life of its own. And then I started to sell t-shirts as a way to pay for her treatment. And the t-shirts did the same. And so we started to hear from people, we started to receive orders from people, not only in other States, but in other countries. And from then until now we have gotten to see the best of the internet, the best of social media, the best of people communicating, reaching out, trying to help friends and family members being vulnerable and admitting their own questions and struggles. And so for 14 years now, we’ve been inviting people into this conversation, trying to let people know it’s okay to be honest, connecting people to professional help, and also paying for professional help. So money that turns into scholarship dollars for counseling and treatment. And, yeah, we’ve been at it ever since.

Social media has always been our home base. Obviously Myspace, we made the transition years ago from MySpace to Facebook, to Tumblr and Instagram. And obviously we have our own website. And in this moment it’s unique because we also typically spend a lot of time on the road — music festivals, tours, college campuses and all of that has been canceled or is on hold. And so we can only show up online. And so we’re trying to do a lot of that right now.

Talkspace:

That’s amazing. I was thinking last night about how, obviously as you said, you started on Myspace so long ago, people who are under the age of like 20 may be like, what the heck? But I think it’s so amazing because people are more open about talking about mental health struggles. You’ll see it all the time on Instagram, people being super open about it. But when you guys started out, nobody was talking about it, it was still very taboo.

I feel like your organization almost started a movement of getting people to open up.People would see the shirts, bands on Warped Tour would wear them, fans would post them on Myspace, and people were like, “what is that?” And then people started opening up and realizing that they are not the only ones who are dealing with this, which I think is the most important thing with mental health. For people to know that they’re not alone. And I think that you have done a really amazing job letting people know they’re not alone and getting people the resources and the inspiration to seek help.

Jamie Tworkowski:

Well, thank you. That’s very kind and I agree with you. I think it’s gotten better. I think certainly it’s true that we as a society, or culturally, people talk more about it. You hear more about it, you see more headlines and really in all sorts of circles, whether it’s professional sports or actors or musicians, I think we see it showing up in so many different places in life. But I still think there’s still a ton of need.

You know, what you just shared we would all think that it meant that things were getting better. And in a way, it’s almost like it’s gotten better and worse where people are more open to the solutions, but the numbers indicate that the problems are getting worse as well. You know, more people are dealing with anxiety that, suicide is on the rise.

So I think we’re thankful for the good, but we know that the work remains, that there’s still such a need, that so many people are struggling. I think a lot of people are used to hearing about mental health, but it’s still another thing to put a hand up and say, “I need to talk to someone. I need help.” I think it’s one thing in theory to believe, “Hey, people talk about this. It’s okay to talk about this.” But to actually make an appointment with a counselor or to seek help for addiction I think is a different thing. And we want people to take those steps, you know, especially people who are really hurting.

Talkspace:

So that being said, what advice do you have for people who — particularly right now — can’t physically go to a therapist? Obviously there’s a bunch of online resources, but still it might be hard for somebody to, as you said, raise their hand and ask for help. To realize that it’s okay to get professional help and it’s a great thing to get professional help. So what advice do you have for people who are struggling right now, who are toying with the idea of getting professional help, but aren’t sure how to do it. Orr if they aren’t sure that they actually need it?

Jamie Tworkowski:

Sure. I think your question included the answer, in that seeking professional help will look different for everyone. I used to go to counseling and sit on a couch across from my counselor. We were in the same room and now that has to look different, right? Because of coronavirus, tele-health is what you hear the most about, but essentially it just means we can still get help in this time. It’s just going to look different. It might happen over the phone or over Skype or some equivalent.

You touched on it being hard, and I think I would just say that it’s hard, but we believe it’s worth it. And I think we want to remind people that you can still get help in this time, that so many mental health professionals are still working, are still available, and it will look different. While it’s maybe not ideal, which is true of so many things in life right now, but we would just encourage people to try, to go for it, and to see how it feels.

I point to the “find help” tool on our website a lot because we point people to local resources, including free and reduced-rate mental health services. So someone can come to our site, click on the words,”find help,” enter their zip code, and instantly find resources. We also point to online support groups.

Talkspace:

I thought you were gonna say points online therapies. I was going to say, I saw you linked to Talkspace.

Jamie Tworkowski:

Talkspace online therapy would be another example! Crisis Text Line is another place that we point people to literally day and night to reach out to someone in a moment of hopelessness or crisis. They’re in the US, Canada, and the UK, and you can always simply send a text and receive a response from a trained crisis counselor. We know it requires people leaving their comfort zone, but again, we believe it’s worth it because the tendency is to isolate when we’re struggling. And so often we need to hear another voice. We need another perspective.

Talkspace:

Yeah, I’m glad you brought up crisis Cris Text Line because I think that’s a really good first step for somebody who’s nervous because, if you’re in full crisis people always tell you to call a suicide hotline and there obviously is a time and place for that. But if you’re not quite at that level, but you’re still in crisis, and you’re really struggling with your mental health, it’s a lot less intimidating — especially for younger people — to send a text than to call. Most people are more comfortable texting these days.

Jamie Tworkowski:

Oh yeah. And honestly the research supports that and would tell you that; and it’s not a knock on the old fashioned phone lines! It’s just how we all communicate right now. And what you touched on is so true, especially when we’re thinking about being vulnerable with someone we don’t know. So it’s just meeting people where they are, in a way that people are used to communicating. And I think they’ve responded to over a hundred million messages in something like seven years. And I saw today, this morning, that their network is now over 10,000 crisis counselors. So it’s just incredible.

Talkspace:

That is amazing. I’m so glad that that is a resource because it’s a game changer. The first time I heard about it, I thought it was a great idea. So I’m really glad that it’s still so available.

Jamie Tworkowski:

Oh, yeah, they’re going so strong and they’ve announced some really ambitious goals to grow, not only to other countries, but I think they’re trying to shift their focus to other languages and reaching a goal of being available to 32% of the world’s population in the coming years. So it’s just amazing.

Talkspace:

It will be really cool to see, to see what they do. So let’s talk about To Write Love on Her Arms and what you guys are doing. I know that you’re doing some things a little bit differently since, as you said, you’re not out on the road during the crisis. You’re an amazing speaker, you’re always doing talks. So can you talk a little bit about the Instagram Lives that you’ve been doing and also the virtual 5k that you have coming up?

Jamie Tworkowski:

Yeah, I would love to. You keep being really kind. So thank you. For me, a lot of it typically looks like speaking. I’ve done a bunch of dates with my friend Noah Gundersen. Opening briefly for him at his shows. Noah is a musician. And then, in recent years, I typically speak at colleges or universities. And pretty much every event in the world, the physical events, for us, are canceled or at least postponed. And so in an attempt to show up for people, that’s really been what the Instagram Lives are about. And obviously we are not reinventing the wheel. It seems like everyone is live on Instagram right now, but we’ve chosen to do it twice a week. So Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:00 PM Eastern. We pretty much always have guests.

We have friends of the organization, some of them work in mental health, but most of them don’t. So people again from all walks of life, some of them have really interesting creative careers. I think it feels important to bring in different voices who work in different fields. So it’s been cool to sprinkle in licensed counselors, but we’ve also talked to athletes and musicians and poets. It’s really an attempt to bring encouragement to create an hour where people feel safe. Where we’re talking about mental health, we’re talking about self care. We’re trying to give people ideas, things to think about in strange this time — what does it look like to be healthy. For friends of the organization, what’s been hard for them, what’s been helpful for them? And so that’s been a privilege, especially for me personally getting to host a lot of those.

And then as you touched on our eighth annual Run for It 5k. Typically, it would happen physically. We’d have a race in central Florida and we’ve had right around a thousand people run. They come to satellite beach and run. Typically it’s in mid-April. And that had to be canceled, for obvious reasons. But we’ve been able to shift to a virtual race, which simply means that people can run or walk or participate wherever they are. And so I believe we have all 50 states represented. And I think it’s right around 18 countries. So it’s really become this awesome global thing. And it’s a really cool range where some people are dedicated runners, they love to run and other people don’t at all. And they want to walk or they’re in a wheelchair or they’re pushing a stroller.

We’re not only looking for diehard runners. We invite people to move for something that matters. That’s the tagline. And so the idea is running or participating for a reason that’s personal for you. So we have people that show up on behalf of someone they’ve lost. We have people that participate on behalf of their own recovery, or maybe they’re running or walking because there’s someone they’re concerned about. And then, beyond all that, it’s become a major fundraiser for the organization. And so this year our goal is to raise $85,000. We’re a little over halfway there. I forget if I said, but Saturday May 16th is the new virtual date. And so we’re taking these opportunities to invite people into it.

Talkspace:

Yeah, I think that’s really cool. And you know, it’s going to loop in people like me, who can’t run to save my life.

Jamie Tworkowski:

Oh yeah!

Talkspace:

I’m definitely more likely to participate in that than a physical run. I definitely want to sign up!

Jamie Tworkowski:

One thing I love is, this is a surprise, but the person on our team that came up with the virtual idea is actually my mom, who as you can imagine is older than us, because, she’s my mom. But she’s also not a tech savvy woman, but she just had the simple idea of wishing people could participate wherever they are. And so it’s actually been a few years now that we’ve offered that, and I forget at what point, but pretty quickly we realized more people would run virtually than with us in Florida. And so obviously that’s very true right now. So, shout out to my mom!

Talkspace:

Shout out mom! That’s so cute. I love that. So how has this whole situation, being quarantined at home, how has that affected your mental health, personally.

Jamie Tworkowski:

Yeah, good question. I’ve had an interesting journey with it. I was with my parents, I went to Florida, but I live in Nashville. I went back to Florida before the quarantine, before the situation we find ourselves in now. So I went for what I thought would be a few days and ended up spending a month with my parents and, for weeks, tried to figure out should I come back to Nashville? Honestly, I was wrestling with which was more selfish. Do I stay with my parents? Which is healthier physically, but also emotionally. So wrestling with staying in Florida indefinitely with my parents versus coming back to Nashville, where I live and where I have a house and my own space.

So after a month I made the decision to come back here, which was really emotional and scary. It was hard to know which was right. It was really hard saying goodbye to my mom at the airport. Wondering again, which is more selfish, then physically flying home, having a layover, navigating that. That was a really tricky transition in the middle of this. It was probably easier to be in Florida because I was with people. I was with my parents. And certainly there are challenges. I didn’t expect to be 40 years old spending a month living with my parents, but at the same time I really tried to lean into being grateful for that time with them.

It took a little bit to settle back in here. It’s definitely quieter, and it’s lonely at times. I think having a dog has helped. Being able to FaceTime friends and family has helped and taking walks. I love my street. I love my neighbors. So even if it’s just getting outside and from a safe distance,, running into neighbors, and saying hello to them and their dogs. I feel like that’s an important thing to point out. Not only the professional health piece, but the relationship and friendship piece as well. It’s easy to think, man, everything is canceled. Everything is limited? I’m alone. I have no options. And it feels important to remind people, and to remind myself at times, that I can still go outside, say hello to another human.

I can take a walk at a safe distance with someone. I can FaceTime my nephews back in Florida. I can check in on people. So again, trying to use the technology that we have and also just the idea that we can go outside and that there’s value in going outside. Obviously doing that safely. So I feel okay. And I’ve tried to show up for people by doing things like Instagram Live. And, certainly, in the midst of that I’ve had my days of being afraid and being anxious or being sad. But if I take it one day at a time, it’s been really helpful to try to work through it that way. That was a really long answer.

Talkspace:

That’s great because not only is that how you are dealing with it, that’s also great advice that anybody can follow. Hopefully anybody, anywhere can pretty much FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, video chat. I think it’s so important to keep in touch with people and have human interaction because without that, it’s not good. So it’s awesome that we have the privilege to be able to keep in touch with family and friends. Whoever! And I think also getting outside in a safe way is crucial. Fresh air. Yay!

Jamie Tworkowski:

I’ll just share one other thought. I think I’ve just been trying to mix up my days and, I believe this about self care in general, but I’m trying to encourage other people. I feel like my days are some work, and some reading, and I might take a nap, and I need to take a walk, maybe there’ll be some meetings like this, or there’ll be FaceTimes back home. I’m just trying to break up what my day looks and feels like. I don’t know. I feel like that’s been helpful to me. So not to just get lost doing like hours and hours of Netflix, but trying to mix up what my day looks.

Talkspace:

Yeah. Because, as we all know, it’s way too easy to get sucked into the couch and then eight hours later…

Jamie Tworkowski:

And we might have days like that, but I think, even on a day like that, just trying to sprinkle in healthy stuff, too. So for me, no matter how I feel, I need to get outside and take my dog for a walk at least once a day. But I think there’s room for having grace. We can’t beat ourselves up. If you do end up watching a show that you enjoy, you don’t have to feel guilty. This is a really unique, hard time. I’ve never been a fan of hustle culture. I feel like some people are trying to do that in this time. I just err on the side of, “Hey, we got to give ourselves grace because this is a really hard time.” There’s people on our team who are, not only working full time, but they’re trying to teach their kids at home. Things are really hard for them.

Talkspace:

Yeah, I agree. I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on Instagram that are like: use this time to take every course, write your book, learn how to play an instrument. And it’s like, all right, yes, we do have some extra free time, but also a lot of our energy is being spent on literally coping with this tragedy and staying healthy. So I think that we’re already doing a lot by taking care of ourselves

Jamie Tworkowski:

I think, if you want to do those things and it feels good and it feels healthy, then go for it. But please don’t feel any pressure. You don’t have to launch your project. You don’t have to perform or create during this time. If you want to, and it feels good, then that’s awesome! But please don’t feel pressure.

Talkspace:

So, aside from Crisis Text Line, are there any other organizations that are doing an amazing job of supporting people or inspiring people or providing resources right now?

Jamie Tworkowski:

That’s a great question. I would say Crisis Text Line are definitely the folks I feel like we point to the most and are our closest ally or partner. But I’ve seen some really good stuff from AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). I love what they’re doing, really trying to show up online in this difficult time. I see a lot on social media and I get their emails. Honestly, I do feel guilty, I feel like I’ve had my head down a bit and focused on the work we’re doing and the stuff that we’re trying to create. But AFSP is one, we love pointing people to the Trevor project. Just love cheering them on and pointing to them as a resource, especially for the LGBTQ community.

The Jed foundation, which is based in New York. Those are friends of ours as well. And I also try to look at organizations outside of mental health. I follow Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action and, I’m moved by how they are addressing gun violence in this difficult time.

I feel like there are all these intersections with mental health. And thinking about how mental health intersects with domestic violence and with that gun violence. I’m a big fan of Preemptive Love Coalition. They are actually based primarily in Iraq, but they have people here in the US and they’re focused on serving refugees and people who are displaced by poverty and violence in this time. I think that’s another one where it might appear to be separate, but obviously it relates if you’re talking about a person who has no home. In this trying time, certainly that is going to relate to mental health. So I think it also feels important to pay attention to other organizations that are doing different things or meeting needs in different ways than we are right now.

Talkspace:

Yeah, absolutely. I agree. Now I’m inspired to look all these people up, see what they’re doing. Thank you for sharing that.

Last question for you — there’s so much negativity right now and rightfully so, honestly, but what do you think are some positives that we are all going to take out of this? Or maybe just a positive that you’re going to take out of this. A positive mental health lesson for your life?

Jamie Tworkowsk:

No, that’s a great question. That is such a good one. Just the reality that people need people, that we need each other, and we all are missing what it it’s like to consistently be in the same room, or to be at a restaurant, to share a meal, to go to a movie, or a concert. We miss those things that, not long ago, made up our normal.

This time is pointing out that, even while many things are canceled, we still need each other and we need relationships. We need conversations. And I think it’s also highlighting mental health in general. I feel like there’s so much talk and thought being directed at the mental health conversation as it relates to this moment in time. The reality that it’s not just a physical health issue. That this pandemic is not just about people getting sick, but that people’s mental health, our mental health, matters in the midst of all of this.

And then I think even a better, more direct answer is the value in slowing down. I feel like, for a lot of people, it’s probably been a healthy challenge to have to slow down.

There are certainly exceptions. I want to acknowledge people that work in hospitals. My brother-in-law is a grocery store manager. So for him, there’s no slowing down. For him, it’s been busy and intense and scary and he’s interacting with the public every day. So I think it’s also important to point out that some people are working a ton, some people are on the front lines of this thing.

But for so many, probably for you and I, the days do feel longer and life does feel slower. And I think for a lot of people, maybe this time has pushed back at the idea of hustle culture or having to always be productive. I think it’s forced people to think, man, there’s more to life, so what do we do with ourselves and what should our days look like? Even when things “go back to normal,” or some version that’s closer to normal — I’m hoping people can slow down. A lot of the things that are true now are true in general, in terms of the need for connection, the need for conversation, the need to get outside, the need to get exercise. And so my hope is that we can keep thinking about these things even after this pandemic.

Talkspace:

Well said. I think that’s so true. And people are probably realizing that they’ve taken a lot of things for granted and hopefully, after this, people won’t take for granted being able to drive over to their friend’s house and hang out. I know I am really missing going to coffee shops to write. Which is the littlest thing, but I miss it so much. But I totally agree. I think that we could all benefit from slowing down and listening to our mental health, listening to our minds, listening to our bodies — doing what’s best for us.

So thank you so much for talking to me, Jamie, about all of this stuff. I’m so excited for this to go out into the world. I think that a lot of people are going to be really inspired by it and hopefully they will. I think that you’ve given them so much advice and resources. Hopefully if anybody who’s watching this is struggling with something, they won’t hesitate to reach out to get help.

Jamie Tworkowski:

I hope so too. Thanks so much, Ashley. Thanks for being a friend and thanks for great questions!

Talkspace:

Yeah, I will talk to you soon and maybe see you in the real world someday again!

Jamie Tworkowski:

I look forward to that!


Jamie Tworkowski is the founder of To Write Love on Her Arms, a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury and suicide. TWLOHA began in 2006 as Jamie’s attempt to help a friend and tell a story. Since then, the TWLOHA team has responded to more than 210,000 messages from over 100 countries, in addition to investing more than $2.5 million directly into treatment and recovery. Jamie’s TWLOHA blogs are a source of hope and encouragement for thousands, and he speaks frequently at universities, concerts and conferences. Jamie lives in Melbourne Beach, Florida. He loves surfing, music, basketball and being an uncle.

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