Kenneth Cole on Launching the Mental Health Coalition to Provide Support During the Coronavirus Pandemic

·7 min read

“How are you?” It’s one of the most commonly asked question in the world, and yet it’s so rarely answered candidly. Working to change this is fashion designer and social activist Kenneth Cole, who recently announced the launch of the Mental Health Coalition, a new initiative bringing together leading U.S. mental health organizations, platforms, and advocates to work more collectively and collaboratively to shatter stigmas around mental health. “It’s a public health crisis,” emphasizes Cole, citing the fact that one in four people globally will be affected by a mental health condition, according to the World Health Organization, and that now, amid a global pandemic with many experiencing grief, anxiety, and depression, the magnitude could become that much more substantial. “The impact the physical virus is going to have on our communities is devastating in and of itself, but I think the emotional implications are going to be even more severe and long-lasting,” he says.

The crux of the Mental Health Coalition is connection and understanding through storytelling. As a digital platform, it’s designed to be a place where individuals can share their personal experiences and coping strategies for mental health in a safe and interactive way. In tandem with its launch, the Mental Health Coalition has created a social media challenge, which asks participants to post a video answering the question “How are you, really?”—and then invite others to answer the same question. The challenge has already prompted participation from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Whoopi Goldberg, Deepak Chopra, Kesha, Kendall Jenner, Justin and Hailey Bieber, and more. Here, Cole expands on how the Mental Health Coalition came to be, and how he hopes the organization can help to rebrand and destigmatize mental health at this critical time.

To start, what have you been reflecting on in quarantine? How is this time shifting your values and ideals? In quarantine, I’ve been reflecting and contextualizing everything. I’ve been spending a lot of time contemplating the post-coronavirus world. How’s it going to work? How are people going to consume? How will people transact? What role will we be able to play? How do we make a meaningful impact in people’s wardrobes, as well as in their communities? You know, fashion is very adept. As an industry we’re very good at reacting to change because that, in effect, is what we do. Fashion is built on a pedestal of change and while you need to have structure, at the same time you need to be able to respond quickly to the prevailing winds as they shift. Now, they’re shifting harder then we’ve ever seen before. So we’re trying to make sense of it all. This is today’s new normal, but what’s more relevant is the next normal. Will we be ready for it?

What initially inspired you to launch the Mental Health Coalition? Why is working to destigmatize mental health so important to you personally? In the fashion business, I’ve always been focused on not just on what people are wearing, but what’s on their minds, and not just for what we stand in, but what we stand for. So it’s always been important for me, and also the brand. I spent the last 30 years working on awareness of HIV, running amfAR for 14 years. I realized the impact we were able to make in so many people’s lives. So when about a year and a half ago, I was asked if I would be willing to work on an initiative to destigmatize mental health, under the notion that it’s as bad today as HIV was 20 years ago, I said yes. One in 200 live with HIV; one in four live with a mental health condition—although I believe it’s really four out of four, because if it’s not you, you’re impacted by somebody you love in your family or community who is. It was in the works before the pandemic and we weren’t expecting to launch this until November. We accelerated everything quickly when we realized how relevant it, in fact, became. As bad as mental health issues are in and of themselves, the stigma is also debilitating.

You’ve got a huge universe of individuals who live under this very nebulous criteria and it defines them, and diminishes them. But if they could be empowered with a new vocabulary, they could be enabled as opposed to diminished. So that’s when the idea comes: Can you rebrand mental health? In effect, that’s what this very ambitious concept is. I spent several months asking every big mental health service provider in this country for their support. So now we have this coalition—this brain trust of resources. It pulls together communities so that they can find opportunities and synergies to create something bigger than they’d be able to individually. I’m not a public health person. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a politician. But I’m good at convening people, and I’m curious, and I think if you bring basic branding and business principles to public health, they are very compatible. They’ve been desperately needed. And so, at the end of the day, these guys are doing all the work and it’s their extraordinary resources and networks that ultimately are what’s going to make this as good as it’s going to be.

What were your primary goals in creating the Mental Health Coalition platform? Why was storytelling such an important element? Several months ago, it was actually my daughter whose idea was to do a storytelling platform, which ended up being embraced by everybody because everything today is about storytelling. It’s the world we live in, and there’s all the science that supports and validates it as a tool. So we built this platform that could aggregate content in a way that empowers people to tell their stories in a way that’s safe and on their own terms. They can make it private or public, and if it was the latter, other people could engage with it. It starts around the fundamental question of “How are you doing, really?” It’s very provocative, and the single most asked question in every language and every culture every day of the week. It’s also the least answered question, so we set up the platform on Instagram and Twitter and we went out and started asking people and challenging them to call on other people to answer the same question. There’s so much science that supports the validity and therapeutic value of somebody just answering that question knowing that they’re not going to be judged for whatever it is they put forth.

Celebrities have incredible reach, but some argue that they can’t relate to the struggles of the average person in this time. What do you say to that? Mental health issues affect everybody. In this world of celebrities and influencers, you’re able to connect with large amounts of audiences and engage people in ways you might not be able to otherwise. It’s an everybody crisis, and if they’re able to convince you that their pain is real, it’s compelling because on Instagram, we typically only have these idealized worlds that we’ve created for ourselves.

What has been your favorite part about the “How are you doing, really?” challenge? For me, the cross-generational impact here is fascinating. Truth be told, it was one of my daughters who really got me thinking about mental health. This is something that was on her mind—this pain that she was living with and in many ways, struggling with alone. I wanted to learn more and see how I could help her. I put myself out there to do that. Then, it was another daughter who came and worked with us to build this. I was brought into it, and when I set out to tell my story, I realized how easy it was to find my story, whereas before I wouldn’t have though it was going to come that naturally. What I’ve seen is so many kids bringing their parents into this program. My niece challenged her father, Governor Cuomo, so there’s really a lot of generational exchange. In years past, we handled mental health issues very differently, and I think that’s something we’re learning from our kids. The need to bring it out in the open and make it comfortable to speak about it in ways we never have before. That’s the only path to normalizing it. I do think we can do this together, but only if we do this together.

Originally Appeared on Vogue