When To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA) was founded 14 years ago, there was no global pandemic. No one’s life was completely upended—in work or relationships with friends and family. For the most part, everyone’s livelihood was intact. But there was still a ubiquitous, and often silent, struggle worldwide. Mental illness was prevalent but was kept behind the curtain more so than it is today. Suicide was (and still remains) the 10th leading cause of death among Americans and was the second leading cause of death for those under the age of 35. In the years between 1999 and 2018, the cases of suicide have increased 35 percent, alone, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As the world exists predominantly in lockdown following the coronavirus pandemic, life as we once knew it is not normal for the unforeseeable future. Anxiety and depression brought on by self-isolation and remaining socially distant, loss, and other traumatic events tied to COVID-19 may lead us on the verge of one of largest mental health crisis in history.
As of April 2020, the federal emergency hotline for people in emotional distress saw a 1,000 percent increase in registered callers, compared to the same time in 2019, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, which also revealed that 72% of Americans have admitted that their lives have been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak. Overall, 56% reported that the stress and worries (rent, job loss, illness, etc.) related to the COVID-19 outbreak has resulted in them feeling at least one negative effect on their mental health and well-being, including increased alcohol consumption, problems with eating and sleep, and the worsening of chronic conditions.
Typically more hands-on and person-to-person, TWLOHA is working to help people cope with loss and other stresses tied to the pandemic. When former clothing sales rep, Jamie Tworkowski, launched the non-profit, he had no idea how to make it work, but he knew he wanted to something to raise awareness, and make treatment available, for people coping with mental health issues. To Write Love on Her Arms was a message of hope for a friend, Renee Yohe, who met Tworkowski through a former roommate. Yohe struggled with depression and self-injury and was denied entry at a local treatment facility. TWLOHA is directly linked to the night Tworkowski met her and she took a razor blade to her left arm and wrote the words “Fuck Up” into her skin. Tworkowski’s message of hope to her and a response to others in its fight to help depression, addiction, self-injury, and to prevent suicide was To Write Love on Her Arms.
“It was not only a phrase but more importantly a goal,” says Tworkowski.
Today, the non-profit has grown exponentially since its modest beginning in 2006, donating more than $2.6 million toward treatment, has traveled more than 3.4 million miles for face-to-face events, and has connected with 8.5 million people via social media and its “Find Help”tool, which helps people find affordable mental health treatment.
Tworkowski spoke to The Aquarian about the current, exacerbated state of anxiety and depression in our current self-isolated and socially distant world, and what people can do to cope and survive as we push through this pandemic.
The last time The Aquarian connected with you, it was September 2019, and the world was in a different place. There was no COVID-19, no quarantining and self-isolating, or a risk of a global mental health crisis. As we live through this state of isolation and social distancing, how are you coping?
We’ve definitely had simpler times. There’s nothing simple about this. I think for the most part I’ve had more good than bad days. I’ve definitely had moments of feeling anxious or afraid or worried about my parents, but for the most part I’ve been okay and I’m trying to be really grateful that my needs are met. I have a job. I have a house, and food, and the people I love are healthy and alive. Obviously, things look way different, and it’s a lonely, quiet time, but I think trying to be grateful helps—and trying to find your purpose. I’m doing my best to be an encouragement to other people who are going through a hard time.
You’ve obviously had to cancel larger, in-person TWLOHA events throughout the country in the wake of this pandemic. On a remote, digital level, how are you helping support individuals in need of mental health care during this unprecedented time?
We’ve been going live on Instagram twice a week. We’ve been having conversations with friends of the organization about what self-care looks like in this season, and what prioritizing mental health looks like, and sharing these tips. We’ve had professional counselors on just talking about the work that they do and trying to provide some tools and support for people that have questions and for people that are struggling. Obviously our events have been canceled and postponed, so online is really the main way we can show up. We’re definitely just thinking a lot about what we can share and post daily, whether it’s blog posts or podcast episodes. We created a Self-Care landing page on our site, and it has a lot of self-care ideas, everything from blog posts that we’ve collected over the years to things as simple as coloring book pages that people can print out. We’re just trying to keep [in] communication with people, and thankfully through the internet we can do that. We’re definitely trying to make people aware of the resources that are still available, everything from online support groups to local counselors who offer tele-health. So we’re just trying to remind people that it’s okay to feel what you feel and that we still need a support system, and professional help is still available.
Typically, when someone is working through depression, you want to move them out of isolation. In our current “normal,” there’s no room for communal and one-on-one meetings or therapy sessions. What are some ways people can get the help they need at home?
We have to use our phones. It’s the first thing that comes to mind. We can use technology, and in terms of our computers and our smartphones, we can FaceTime or we can be on a Zoom chat, or even an old fashioned phone call. We’ve tried to remind people that as much as so many things have been canceled and limited, it’s easy to buy into the narrative that we are completely isolated, but you can still reach out and you can even have a counseling appointment. It may not be you sitting on a couch in the same room, but you can still get help.I even relate to that personally. I feel like I was aware in theory that we can FaceTime, but it was only in the last few days that I actually tried to do it. It’s such a cool thing that we can see each other and we can hear each other’s voices. I think it’s important to remind people that we were made for connection. We really need that and crave that. Even if you’re an introvert. Even if you’re sort of good at quarantine or isolation, we all still need relationships, and we need other people. So it felt important to remind people of that. Of course, there are times where we need more help than our friends and family can provide, so that’s when we point to professionals.
There are people who had pre-existing mental illness prior to COVID, and may have not been on the more extreme end of the spectrum. What’s the best way to try to help people who are dealing with varying levels of anxiety, depression, and beyond?
We see it a little more grey versus black and white. I think maybe it’s a spectrum where some people deal with these things in a really intense way and other people, maybe not as much. But I think as people we can all relate to pain and grief and anxiety. I think we try to really speak to people in a lot of different circumstances. There are people right now who are simply bored and anxious, and there are other people who are grieving and out of work. So I think we just try to acknowledge all the different circumstances and offer words, and ideas, and statements that meet people where they are and remind people that even if someone is bored and a little bit anxious, they still deserve a support system. Just like we want someone who’s grieving and trying to figure out how to pay rent to have a support system as well. One thing I am seeing is that it’s evening the playing field where all of a sudden a lot more people relate to anxiety, and to loneliness and maybe even depression. I’ve seen even a few lighthearted tweets and posts like, ‘Hey, the whole world’s anxiety has caught up to mine.’ Maybe people relate a little more, because it is such a hard time for everyone, even if, on the outside, our lives look a bit different.
For so long, people have been embarrassed to talk about mental illness. It was just something you keep to yourself. Do you think, in lieu of the world we’re currently in, that talking about mental health is no longer a taboo or shameful subject?
I certainly hope so. I think we’re kind of getting there. It’s gotten better over time. I think we see more and more headlines. We see more and more stories. We see more and more people in all different walks of life choosing to be vulnerable and open about their experiences relative to mental health. Something I’ve questioned lately—not only with mental health but in general—is what are the takeaways we can keep with us from this time? Maybe it’s slowing down. Maybe it’s more time with family. Maybe it’s not traveling so much.
You’ve worked closely with the music industry in the past. Who are you working with now to help get your messages across?
We’ve definitely had some artists and other guests on [IG live, podcast, etc.] We’ve had a lot of different friends with different occupations that have joined us for these conversations. We were really excited to be part of the 320 Festival (May 8-10). It was started by Talinda Bennington, the wife and widow of Chester Bennington (Linkin Park) and Kevin Lyman, who is the founder of the Warped Tour. It was supposed to be a big festival in Los Angeles, but now it’s online and they actually had 21 hours of content for free over three days. It’s artists and people in [the] mental health [community]. Chris Martin from Coldplay performed, and I got to speak on a panel. There are a lot of people doing really creative, cool things online that we are excited to be a part of. One event we have has not been canceled, our annual Run For It 5k. We had to cancel the physical gathering in Florida, but we had a virtual race on May 16, and we actually had over 3,500 people in all 50 states and around the world running and walking to raise money for the organization. Specifically, we invite people to participate for a reason—whether it’s someone they’ve lost or their own recovery or someone they’re concerned about. So it’s actually the biggest 5k we’ve ever had, which is ironic when we were wondering if it could happen at all. It was cool to give people the option. We’ve had the virtual component [in recent years], but it’s never been this big, so it’s pretty incredible to see so many people wanting to do it.
Moving ahead, it’s likely there will be people suffering from a variance of mental illness as a result of the trauma and grief tied to this pandemic. What platform does the government need to put in place to aid individuals— specifically healthcare workers and those who lost loved ones—suffering from PTSD or worse?
Oh man, that’s a great question. I would love to see resources made available to anyone who needs it. Obviously there are so many people affected and they are not only frontline workers working in healthcare, but I think there are so many of us that are, or will be, dealing with it in some form. I think there will be a mix. I’d love to see the government make some things available, and non-profits and private citizens as well. For us as an organization, one thing we get to do is fund counseling and treatment. We have a “Find Help”tool on our website, and one thing we’ve been able to add in recent weeks is resources—not only super specific to mental health, but also resources related to housing and food and just basic needs. It’s going to take a collective effort of people in a lot of different circles to look after the folks who are going through so much, or have already been through so much. Outside of the healthcare workers, if you lost someone or you can’t be with them… there are so many layers to this. There are so many people dealing with pain. I’ve seen a bunch of articles talking about grief in ways that we may not have thought about previously. The truth is, so many of us are grieving, even if we can’t really put our finger on what or why. We’ve lost something. Some people have lost family members and other people have lost jobs. And for a lot of us, maybe we lost our day-to-day life that we were used to or things that we took for granted. Obviously, no one could have imagined life looking the way it does now and that it would be this way for an extended period.
A MESSAGE OF HOPE FROM TWLOHA:
If hope, like the stars, falls out of focus, you needn’t feel shame. It’s not your fault if it feels distant. But know that it is never truly gone. Hope remains in the embrace of family and friends. Hope remains in the voices of those on the other end of a helpline, guiding you through scheduling counseling appointments, and leading support groups. Hope remains in the ebb and flow of recovery, the patient expectation of the day your story encourages another. Despite circumstance, despite distance, despite doubt—hope remains.
You can catch TWLOHA Instagram live sessions, with Tworkowski and special guests, at @twloha. The TWLOHA podcast features The Black and White Miniseries, which recently included special guest Renee Yohe, speaking about hope and her mental health journey, including the courage to reach out for help when she felt lost.
TWLOHA recently partnered with Skullcandy for Mood Boost, a program designed to respond to the growing mental health crisis among millennials and Gen Z. Throughout the year, Mood Boost will feature exclusive content, including uplifting stories from musicians and athletes shared through the platform, each month. Skullcandy wireless devices will be also sold in art bundles, featuring free limited edition art prints from artists like Tina Touli, Rude, and Queen Andre, with proceeds going to TWLOHA.
In collaboration with Nettwerk Music, TWLOHA also has curated a Spotify playlist entitled “Fear Won’t Win with Music.” (See Spotify player below to listen.)
Last fall, TWLOHA held its 8th annual campaign to honor World Suicide Prevention Day (Sept. 10) and National Suicide Prevention Week (Sept. 6- 12, 2020) and raised money to fund treatment and recovery for more than 4,100 counseling sessions and 60,000 Find Help searches.