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Freakquencee on Manifesting Affirmations, the Real Influence of Trauma on Her Life, and Mental Health in the Family Sphere

Name: Freakquencee 
Role: Hiphop/Funk/Soul Artist
Based in: Newark, NJ
Age: 26
Freakquencee

1. In your words, who are you?  

I am someone ever growing and changing. I am someone that doesn’t completely know myself yet and I am forever learning. I am also a healer, an influencer, and an amazing life changing artist.

2. Give us a day in your life. 

I pick Thursday. Every Thursday I wake up at 10AM to prepare for my weekly therapy session.  I stay in bed for about 10 to 15 minutes to give my brain enough time to fully awake. Once I get up I sit and take a brief moment to give thanks and say my affirmation and contemplate on what to wear and how I want to express myself for the day. Afterwards, I prepare to leave and finally exit the house around 11:30AM. At 11:59PM I arrive at the counseling center for my 12PM session. The session lasts about an hour. After leaving the center I go grab a bit to eat from any local vegan eatery and then I head home to take at least an hour or two to myself to unwind before I start answering emails or doing anything business related. I most likely always have a show/recording session/meeting or a rehearsal to prepare for. By 6PM my work is usually complete so I change into my nightlife clothing and prepare myself for the rest of the night. My day usually ends around 2-2:30AM.

3. Describe your wellness regimen. What are some actions you take to keep yourself well (mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually)?  

I’m still working on finding things that I enjoy doing alone or with the people I care about. However, right now my wellness regimen looks like going to therapy every Thursday, reciting positive affirmations everyday to keep my brain afloat, going to the gym and finding balance between my career, my personal life and the people I care for.

4. You’ve mentioned that you are the first person in your family to really live life at large and out loud acknowledging, talking about, and pursuing mental health– being the one to do anything “first” is a big step for anyone. What have been the dynamics like in relation to that, and discussing mental health in the family sphere? 

I grew up in a household where discussing mental health wasn’t really a thing. As a child in my household it always seemed like the more you held in, the stronger you looked in the eyes of everyone else. Talking about mental health is still something that isn’t easily done in my family. There are a lot of stereotypes surrounding seeking therapy/counseling, some that may have turned my family off completely from seeking mental health. Some like you have to have money to afford talking to a therapist, mental health is only for crazy people, and mental health only being a thing for white people. I also believe that my family as well as many people don’t really understand what practicing positive mental health looks like. Positive mental health can be as simple as reciting positive affirmations everyday, learning to say no when you don’t agree, drawing boundaries with family, friends and associates. Taking up that favorite hobby that makes you feel good, practicing positive self esteem, working out, practicing healthier eating habits, talking about your feelings and also checking yourself when you do negative things as a human or things that may hurt others. I believe my family has to discover these truths on their own.

5. You are a big advocate of using affirmations for your life and your professional endeavors. Give me an example of how you go about it. Maybe tell us how an affirmation practice of yours played out, in actionable, “it happened like this” steps. We want to know.

My affirmations are more like mantras. I wake up and I take a moment to allow my brain time to catch up. Once I’m up and ready to stand, I stare into the mirror; It’s important to watch yourself, it makes a bigger impact. I believe in the universe so first I start by giving thanks to the universe, the same way one would pray to any God one believes in. After giving thanks to the universe for my existence, my life, and the loving people I have surrounding me, I give thanks to my ancestors and I also give thanks to myself because it’s important to recognize your own power and self worth. Then, I tell myself that “I am creative, I am accomplished, I am a phenomenal songwriter, I am an outstanding freestyler, I am a wonderful performer, I am happy, I am healthy, I am focused, I am wealthy.” I tell myself these things because I believe that humans are masters at manifesting. We have the power to bring whatever we think and say into existence. The more positive things I tell myself, the more I start to believe and act on it. The more someone says they have a crappy life, the more the universe provides them with that crappy life. Lastly, I picture my day and all of the beautiful things I want to happen for the day. I close my eyes and literally talk to myself as if the day has already happened for me and I try to think about it in the exact mood I would be in if something amazing has already happened to me. 

For example: I opened for Canadian singer/songwriter Ruth B. this past summer and I manifested my entire night.

Before I left my apartment to start the day I gave myself a moment to close my eyes and envision my day. It went a little something like this: “Today was fu*king incredible! My performance was amazing I can’t believe how much my skills have improved since my last performance. The people I’ve connected with are amazing. Everyone enjoyed my set. I made people dance, I made people cry, I made people release tonight. Wow, Ruth B. absolutely loved my performance and I can’t believe I have a collaboration with her. Tonight was so beautiful.” The scariest thing, but like scary in a good way, was that my day happened exactly the way I envisioned it would. At that exact moment I had more belief in the power of manifestation and positive affirmations than ever. For anyone that wants to try my manifestation technique, I would encourage you to say your affirmations and envision what you want as if, it is already yours and as if it is in front of you. Even if your don’t believe it yet. Take a chance and try it out for a month, because why not take a chance on your mental health? Why not take a chance on something that may benefit you?

We have the power to bring whatever we think and say into existence.

6. You have nurtured a love for music for 9 years, after having gotten your start in expression through the medium of poetry. Describe how it felt stepping into the roles you are in now, and continuing to develop your long-standing passion for music.  When does work transform into play? How does that feel?

Honestly, I feel a bit of everything. Especially lately, I’ve been getting really amazing opportunities. I’m surprised that I’m making a dent in the world of music but I’m also humbly cocky because I always believed I would. I also feel grateful to all who support me, grateful that my words are so powerful, and grateful to feel empowered through them. Work transforms into play when I am just creating music and performing. I absolutely love making music and performing with my bandmates, Liam aka Limabeats, Justin Guitarcia, Quinn Devlin, Bymaddz, Jake Stampen, Roc, Brandan Burdock, Nate Larose, Josué Simon, Hans, and Chiekh. Haha I don’t mean to name everyone, I just have a lot of respect for these guys so I had to mention them all. Creating music and performing– it doesn’t feel like a job at all. It feels like I’m speaking directly from my high self.

7. You are so passionate about your community. That’s pretty apparent through your platforms and your way of living. You hug a lot of the supporters that come out for your performances and you’ve hosted spontaneous mental health sessions too. How do you maintain the energy to keep on giving despite the emotional demands of being a performer and a community leader? Where does your motivation come from? 

I think that this is who I naturally am. I was born a Pisces and we naturally feel a connection to the world, to others and showing all beings compassion. Being that we’re the last sign of the zodiac we normally share so many qualities of the other 11 zodiacs and this is what I think makes it easy for us to connect to everyone. I’ve always felt an urgency to help my community, to help the people I share this world with and to show compassion to the animals we share the world with. I have an abundance of energy because this is my true spirit so I don’t feel drained. I only feel drained when I feel my spirit is being attacked, mistreated, or when I feel I am doing too much or not being my honest self.

My motivation comes from me seeing and understanding the demand for help in my community and in the world. I also realize that I have the ability to help and influence so I use the tools I have to help whenever I can. I have my life path numbers 33/6 tattooed on the back of my neck to remind myself who I am and what I stand for. I also have a koifish swimming up stream for good luck and great achievement on my arm to symbolize what I want to manifest in my life. Also, I was this years old when I found out how Pisces of me that is, haha. 

8. Tell me about a time you experienced poor mental health. 

I was just in a poor menstat. I’ve probably dealt with it for the past 2 and 1/2 weeks, maybe longer.  

I was under the weather for a moment and ended up gaining weight from lying in bed eating and resting up. With that I started to feel really bad because I’ve been working in the gym so hard to work off the weight I’ve gained back. I started to feel unattractive and once in that negative mind state, things in my life started to feel like they were falling apart and I got into a personal problem with my family and on top of that I got into another situation where I dealt with some really toxic masculinity in my neighborhood which left me feeling really powerless and I was in this really negative mindstate. It wasn’t until I listened to a song I have called “Driven” where I cried and realized how powerful I am and that I’ll be okay. I’ve also had a session with my therapist and randomly met some really beautiful souls. 

9. Trauma played a role in your life and in your mental health. You were raped/sexually assaulted (let me know which term you prefer I use). How would you describe the journey you took or take in continuing to heal from such an act of violence and what is it like, having an “invisible” injury such as that, which affects one internally as much as say, a comparative “physical injury” of being hit with a car or experiencing a violent physical scuffle?

I was raped: I was 12 years old and my innocence was taking advantage of. At first I felt guilty, confused, like I was to blame, like it was my fault, like I didn’t know myself, alone, just so many different hurtful emotions and it took me to some very dark and ugly places. Places I’ll never want to go again. It took me 12 years to get to a place of mental health I can be comfortable with and I still get flashbacks. It can be something as simple as a smell, a color, a word, a sound or even random memories or dreams. It’s something I feel I will always deal with, but I learn better ways to cope with it everyday. I realized I use to carry a lot of self hatred for myself, and in a way a I had developed a silence. I use to not speak up for myself or stand up for myself in moments I felt really mattered. I sought out the worst relationships and I thought I could carry tons of baggage because I’ve been through some pretty heavy things. Practicing self love, realizing that I am a different individual now and keeping it real with myself, confiding in a trusted someone and now seeking therapy, learning when to speak up even when the world stands against my decisions, demanding my respect whenever in spaces that where the minority is me, the black, queer, woman. Are all ways I’ve learned to find my power again and I see that I am extremely beautiful and powerful and I learn more everyday. 

10. What is something you want to share to those in your community who are specifically affected by trauma?

It is a frustrating, complicated journey. Be patient with yourself and the time it takes for you to heal. Be kind to yourself. It is okay to start over, it is okay to get angry, it is okay to be confused, it is okay to not know. This isn’t an easy journey but it is worth it. Dealing with trauma, I’ve always felt like something was taking away from me mentally. I now realize that I still have what I felt was taking from me, that I’ve always had it. My trauma just made it hard for me to recognize it and what has changed about it, but I am in control and I am relearning myself and empowering myself through every start. 

11. What is the next frontier in wellness for you? (Basically, what’s up ahead?)

I want to get back to meditation, I’ve been searching for ways to cope with my anxiety but kind of also avoiding meditation because I’m afraid of starting it over again. I also want to fully break down the things I find hard to understand about myself. I am currently working on that with my therapist.

12. What is a brand, organization, or an item in the wellness (I use the term wellness here liberally, basically any do good, positive impact related entity or thing that promotes good “health” or “wellbeing” of the world, or it can be referenced in the individualistic sense like the coffeemaker you use or the beauty product you use, etc.) space that you are in love with? 

I am in love with spaces that provide artists with a place to just work, expand and be. My good friend Regine Luis has a art studio in Newark, NJ that feels peaceful and provides me with peace of mind when I need it. If not there, whenever I am on stage. I truly feel free.

Interview by Susan Im

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Martha Dorn, Executive Director of The Art Therapy Project, on Art Making and Talk Therapy as Medicine, COVID-19’s Impact on Mental Health Programs, and Social Impact

Name: Martha Dorn
Title: Executive Director, The Art Therapy Project 
Based in: New York City
Martha Dorn

With over 30 years serving in the nonprofit sector, Martha Dorn currently serves as the Executive Director of New York based mental health and art therapy services organization, The Art Therapy Project, having overseen its growth and impact since 2011.

1. In your own words, describe who you are. 

I’m a nonprofit administrator and development professional focused on improving the quality of life for others. 

2. Can you describe The Art Therapy Project and what types of clients you serve? 

The Art Therapy Project is the only nonprofit organization in New York City dedicated to providing free group art therapy to adults and youth affected by trauma. Using the art-making process and with support from our art therapists, clients learn how to explore feelings, increase self-awareness and cope with life’s challenges.

Our clients are veterans; survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence; individuals with substance use and addition challenges; 9/11 survivors; the LGBQTIA+ community and at-risk youth including those in foster care; homeless; court-involved; and many who are growing up with constant exposure to domestic violence, drug use and gang activity.

Remembrance of Peace, male veterans group

3. What are the benefits of art therapy? 

Art therapy uses the creative process in combination with talk therapy to address emotional, behavioral or situational issues. It offers a unique way to confront and manage challenges, oftentimes more easily than through traditional talk therapy. Traumatic memories are difficult to verbalize and, in fact, are stored in our brain as visuals, which is why art therapy can be a highly effective treatment for traumatized individuals.

There are numerous articles and publications that delve into the neuroscience behind art therapy, the American Art Therapy Association monthly journal is a great resource.

4. What initiatives are you observing right now that are popularizing art therapy? 

With the country in lockdown due to COVID-19, there has been an enormous increase in discussions around mental health, mindfulness and self-care. The coloring book phenomenon, while not art therapy, stems from people experiencing how using coloring books can be therapeutic in alleviating stress. The uptick in people embracing creative pastimes during this crisis, whether making art, cooking or knitting, is very encouraging as these activities help us manage our stress and improve our mood.

5. Would you be open to sharing a story about one of your clients who has made significant progress using art therapy? 

We have worked with more than 7,000 clients since opening our doors in 2011 and I am proud that there are many stories about clients who have made progress to move beyond the traumatic experiences that brought them to us originally. 

As a child, one of our clients had been on the receiving end of constant aggressive and abusive behaviors. She joined the military in an effort to escape with hopes that the military would also support her education and provide her with opportunities to improve her situation. Instead, she discovered that for women, the military could be an equally unsupportive and abusive environment.  She learned that within the service, women frequently endure sexism and abuse at the hands of male officers and superiors. 

After painting over 50 pieces of art, all with just hearts, she said the repetitive creation of hearts helped to relieve her anxiety, an anxiety driven by thoughts and feelings that she was not loved, didn’t know how to love and didn’t deserve to be loved. After she participated in a special photo art therapy module and was shown a new painting technique by her art therapist, the client created two pieces of art without hearts. She could not explain it herself, but it was an example of the progress she was making. The Art Therapy Project provided this client with a sense of community, a sense of security and the hope of improving her relationships with others in the future.

Our client told her art therapist that she hangs a new piece of her art in her hallway at home each month, a ritual that she has come to look forward to. Her choice to hang her art reflects both her pride in her work as well as an increasing sense of her own value.

6. As a leading therapy practice in NYC, The Art Therapy Project strives to be active as a thought leader. What would you like to have the community understand about art therapy? 

Art therapy is a master’s level mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process and the resulting artwork to improve or restore a client’s functioning and sense of personal well-being. Its unique combination of psychotherapy and art techniques can help clients: explore feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety and increase self-esteem. Art therapy is about the process of creating art, not the finished product. No artistic skills are necessary.

7. You’ve mentioned that the Art Therapy project is the only nonprofit organization in New York dedicated to using art therapy among marginalized groups. Why do you think there isn’t more art therapy?

Having an art therapist on staff is expensive and many organizations are unable to afford it. Our program model is designed to help fill the gap. We partner with other nonprofits who then identify which of their clients would most benefit from receiving art therapy. We provide licensed, board-certified art therapists and all of the art supplies.

8. During COVID-19, how successful has The Art Therapy Project been in offering digital mental health services such as conducting tele-health art therapy sessions? How do you think this will change the teletherapy landscape going forward? 

It’s a challenging time. Because of the crisis, and the social distancing guidelines for non-essential workers, so many mental health programs have been suspended, even though supporting mental health is more essential now than ever. The Art Therapy Project is now offering daily art therapy groups online and hope to increase our offerings in the coming weeks. These tele-art therapy sessions focus on fostering social support, developing new coping skills and providing a positive emotional outlet during these difficult times. Our individual, fee-for-service program, The Art Therapy Practice has also transitioned to providing tele-art therapy sessions for anyone seeking support.

9. Describe your wellness regimen. What are some steps you take for your mental, physical, and/or spiritual health?

I make a point of turning off all electronics at least an hour before getting into bed and I minimize checking emails and even answering the phone on weekends. I do Pilates a couple of times a week. I do make art and embroider, and also, when necessary, allow myself to do nothing.

10. Given that you’ve spent over 30 years in the nonprofit space, what advice would you give to other individuals working in the nonprofit or social impact space on how to avoid burnout? 

I am incredibly mission-driven and have chosen my positions carefully so that my motivation comes from deep within me. The fact that I love what I do helps tremendously. 

Knowing when to rest and finding ways to recharge is key. In general, I am pretty good about knowing when I need to take time for myself. I recharge by spending time with friends, visiting museums, cooking, reading and doing crossword puzzles.  

11. Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give your younger self, what would it be? 

Hang in there! There is an awful lot of work to be done.

Learn more about The Art Therapy Project here and here.

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee

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Eslee, Photographer and Art Director On Work and Mental Health, Faith, and Getting to No

Name: Esther Lee 
Role: Photographer and Art Director 
Based in: Seattle, Washington 
Age: 32 

Esther Lee, or as her 90,000 strong-online community refers to her as, @eslee, is a creative mind to watch. More impressively, and should one find themselves meeting her #irl, you’ll find her offline self exudes an inner grace and wisdom that appears to reflect a life far older than her own (she’s a mere 32). We chat with Esther and explore all things wellness and mental health: work, faith, balance, and skincare, and also get hints and tips on where this art director and photographer gets her artistic inspiration.

“The last time I wore a hanbok was when I was one. I always thought hanboks only had one type of look but the modern days have become more creative and thoughtful with intricate designs. As I am getting older, I really appreciate my own culture and want to learn more about Korean history.” – Esther Choi / Hanbok by MeeHee Hanbok

1. In your words, describe who you are.

My name is Esther and I am someone with a big imagination who is always capturing photos or videos on a daily basis. When I’m not shooting, I love to direct and produce. Creativity is my lifestyle– wherever I go, I am always looking to bring out something interesting from what I encounter. 

2. You’re currently juggling multiple projects, and it’s characteristic to the nature of your role as a photographer and art director. How do you stay balanced or is the term “balance,” in reference to your role in life unrealistic?

When I first started my photography business, I wanted to try everything from styling, to shooting, to editing, and so I did that. That drive to do everything helped me learn all the skills needed to bring an image together. I also did everything my clients couldn’t afford because I wanted to make all my clients happy, but over time and with a lot more work, I became overcommitted and frustrated. I struggled with saying yes too much for so many years (I can’t even tell you how many!) until I finally decided to start saying no. This brought me to understand the meaning of “healthy balance.” What I do now: Most of my assigned projects give me about a week to prepare for the shoot. If that’s the case, I won’t have much time to come up with a storyboard, so I’ll often take just one role at a time. If the client absolutely needs help with photography and art direction, I’ll make sure to plan for several other hands. 

3. Describe your creative aesthetic. Where do you draw your inspiration form/ Do you have any artists that you’ve looked on for their mastery of photo editing and post- production?  

My aesthetic is clean, quirky and elegant. Something I currently struggle with is elevating my style. It’s pretty tough to have a unique sense especially in the world of all these content and social media platforms. When I’m not working on paid projects, I spend time studying Wes Anderson’s style and practicing his colors. He has a selective style and is gifted with colors. 

I’m also a bit of a cinema junkie (why I love to shoot videos on the side for my passion projects!) and travel a lot as well, which are two things I draw inspiration from. When travelling, I’m always looking to unique architectural buildings, great cafes, and book stores. 

4. How do you feel about the word “success”? In your industry, it’s easy to fall into measuring someone’s “success” by their numbered accolades or the prestige of their clients. What is your relationship with this word as a professional, but also as a person separate from your professional identity?

I think this is definitely a question for which the answer would keep evolving for me. For me, success is doing my best regardless of what I’m doing. If I know that at the end of the day my duties or work has helped someone or something, then I see that as my accomplishment. Numbers are temporary and it will always fluctuate, but the actual job that one has done and in service of clients, families, friends will remain and be remembered. 

5. As a person with an influential social media profile, how have you struck a balance with the intense digital connectivity it encourages and often demands of you to upkeep? 

I take breaks here and there so that I don’t get too consumed by all the social media pressure. I also have a timer on my apps to let me know when to log off. This way, I can maintain a healthy relationship with Instagram and my community.

6. Can you share a bit about a time of mental health flux? 

My mental health’s improved since I’ve moved to Washington. The pace for me was a lot different and I think that in turn really put my mind at ease. Now that I’m more mentally and emotionally fit, I’ve been working through how to stay motivated, which is a new challenge for me! Being considerably new in Washington and adjusting to a different industry culture, and also evolving my working style has put me in a position of needing to find my pace and style again as a photographer and art director. 

7. In the midst of certain struggles, you stated that you relied on faith, your spiritual well being as an element in your overall well being. Can you explain how that works?

I do something called devotion. The equivalent to this that is most easily understood would be meditation, but meditating with the Bible, and having the source of what you’re being present with as God. I go on my Bible app and go through different plans of life stages. It usually takes me about 20 minutes and I take notes! Devotions in part help me realize that there are bigger things out there to be concerned about, and learn to make the best out of any situation with perspective.

8. In your mind and from your own experiences, how do you reconcile faith and religion with modern day therapy and psychology? 

As my truth lies in my belief in God, I always pray. Prayer is the answer for me, and to stay truly connected with God.

9. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one. What are some actions you take to keep yourself well?

I run and take walks in my neighborhood. I tried yoga a couple times, but I realized I don’t have the patience to stay physically calm. 🙂 

10. Care to share with us a couple of your favorite wellness and skincare picks?

Not because I am being interviewed by you guys, but I actually really enjoy the cream! It’s super moisturizing and gives a good balanced texture on my skin. I have also been loving the Soma Ayurvedic Vitamin C serum. With regards to nutrition, I eat a lot of oranges and blueberries and drink green tea for its antioxidant properties. 

11. Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give to your younger self, what would it be?

Know when to say yes and no. Have more confidence and don’t stress too much. Your health is so important and you will need all the strength later on to keep up. Love yourself!

All photos by Eslee

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im & Theophila Lee

Edited by Susan Yoomin Im

Laura Jung, Digital Creator & Founder of Event Series @skincontactnyc on the Unique Risks for “Burnout” as an Influencer and What Fuels Her Love for [Online] Community

Name: Laura Jung
Role: Digital Creator & Founder of soon-to-be events series @skincontactnyc
Based in: NYC
Age: 24
Laura Jung

1. In your words, describe who you are.

I am a forever student, citizen of the world and lover of life who hopes to inspire everyone to live their best life. To add on for those who don’t know what I do, I’m a full-time digital creator and founder of an upcoming events series called Skin Contact, aimed at bringing together like-minded individuals to themed dinners and events.

2. You’ve written in your blog that, to you, “… the beauty of food is that it sits at the intersection of so many cultural industries, be it art, fashion, travel, technology, activism…” You seem like you are highly curious and invested in multiple arenas of personal interests and work. Of the different directions, what are you most passionate about or committed to?

I think about this a lot because I’ve built my persona and online community championing the intersection of all of these facets of life. I think that’s why people are drawn to my lifestyle.

I believe in every individual crafting their own lifestyle by weaving together all their interests, no matter how different they all are.

I’m most passionate and committed to just being authentic! I can’t pick any one thing to being something I’m most committed to. But I can say that I am first and foremost most passionate about having a distinct, authentic voice and attitude when going forth with every endeavor, whatever that may be. 

3. Give us a day in your life today.

So I’m currently in Seoul, Korea where we are not under a lockdown so a day in my life is a bit different from those elsewhere in the world. Today, I woke up and did a Pilates session via IG live by @liabartha – she’s incredible for those looking for a low impact, highly effective strengthening Pilates class. I then took my dog out for a walk, which is always one of my favorite parts of the day because I love moving around as much as I can and getting fresh air. I then walked to a cool neighborhood with my mom to have lunch, we browsed some shops and ended our little excursion in a coffee shop. I came home and caught up on some emails, trying to keep projects afloat while I’m in Seoul during the pandemic and started editing a vlog for my new YouTube channel! It’s currently 6pm and I’m thinking about what I should cook for dinner with my family ☺ Very wholesome activities right now while I’m home! 

4. If you’re open to sharing, can you tell us where your mental health or wellbeing is right now?

I’m in a really good place right now. I take pride in generally being an incredibly optimistic person and I say this with full knowledge that being in this mental state is a privilege. I’ve never dealt with depression, though, as with anyone, I go through phases in my life where my happiness and usual hopeful, optimistic self is really challenged. 

Currently, the more I engage with my audience and align myself with certain messages, values and ideals, the more I battle with imposter syndrome. It’s kind of a crazy thing that I only started experiencing in the past year as work really picked up. Sometimes I feel like I am not adding any value into the lives of my followers and that I inundate them with so much information that may be viewed as self-serving and narcissistic. I rely heavily on the validation of my followers. Feedback is so important to me not only on a business level, but on a personal one as well. I want to hear that the content and information that I put out there is being consumed positively because that’s all I wanted to do in the first place! To live a rich and positive life, whether through inspiring sartorial choices, exploring the world, seeking a healthy lifestyle… 

5. As a person who the public is highly engaged and connected with via Instagram, how have you struck a balance with benefiting personally and professionally from intense digital connection and frequent information loading vs it affecting your wellbeing negatively? Is this a strong point of concern for your peers with careers as bloggers or content creators? 

I kind of answered this in the previous question but like I said, I really rely on communicating with my followers to make sure that what I’m putting out there is being received positively. I don’t ever want my presence online to be detrimental to my wellbeing nor my followers’. 

I think every digital creator with an online community deals with burnout. Burnout not in the usual sense of “overworking,” but in the sense that sharing our life online like we do makes us completely dependent on the internet.

It’s so important to take a step back and assess how much digital connection is appropriate for you at your current state and how you can scale back to better your mental health. 

I love being around certain people who literally make me forget to check my phone, or doing an activity that does the same. It’s the most refreshing feeling ever when you realize, “Oh! I forgot to check my phone!” Sometimes, when my phone runs out of battery, I won’t even rush to get a charger. I’ll let it be and enjoy the silence for a moment.  

6. What do you hope your Instagram account or content from your online persona can bring to your followers? 

I want my followers to feel like I’m their friend giving them advice, entertainment and inspiration for all of the aspects of life that resonate with the both of us. From the restaurants I dine in, to the outfits I’m wearing, to the wine I’m drinking, and to the places I’m seeking when I travel. I’ve built an entire lifestyle based on my persona and interests, and I want that to inspire people to go out and live a life they love, are happy in and are proud of. 

7. On this note, I wanted to ask if you’d be willing to share some words of encouragement or something/or an activity that you are turning to comfort or to maintain your wellbeing during this period in the midst of a global pandemic, that we could use to share with the broader community.

Find. Your. Flow. Seriously. Find that one activity where time doesn’t exist, where you are solely focused on that one thing and that one thing only. It does wonders to your mental health and we could all use a break from everything else going on in and outside of our heads. Sometimes, even an activity as mundane as dishwashing or cleaning my apartment makes me feel a sense of “flow”. Also, please check in on people you love. We need intimate human connection now more than ever. 

8. Care to share with us a couple of your favorite wellness and/or skincare picks? 

The best thing you can do for your skin is to properly cleanse it. Seriously, if you’re not cleansing your face properly, all other steps that follow are basically useless. I always double and sometimes triple cleanse. Always with an oil cleanser first. Also, face oils as moisturizers are your best friend! 

9. Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give to your younger self, what would it be?

Seriously STOP caring about what other people think. Judgers and haters will always exist. You won’t be able to vibe with everyone. Vibes speak louder than words. Gut feelings are guardian angels. ☺

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im & Theophila Lee

Co-founder and COO of FloraMind, Danny Tsoi, on Using Hiphop Music to Talk Mental Health with Youth, Differentiating Typical Youth Development from Mental Illness, and the Criticality of Checking In with Yourself to Protect your Wellbeing

Co-founder & COO of FloraMind, Danny Tsoi
Danny Tsoi of FloraMind
Name: Danny Tsoi 
Title:  Chief Operating Officer, Co-founder of FloraMind
Based in: New York City
Age: 29

1. In your words, describe who you are. 

I am a social entrepreneur, infinite learner, and champion for human potential. I look for opportunities to impact the world through intersecting the world of technology, policy, and social change. Figuring out the most important leverage points for social impact and developing solutions is my passion. I enjoy nature, traveling, and learning how we can all play a role towards shaping a society that works for all of us.

2. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one (i.e., morning routines or evening rituals). What are some actions you take to keep yourself well (mentally, spiritually, and emotionally)? 

Much of my routine is focused on calming exercises and finding ways to reorient focus during the day.

Shortly after waking up, I will practice Transcendental Meditation in the morning. I try to make sure I grab breakfast and coffee to set myself up for energy to tackle the rest of the day. In the afternoon or evening, I walk for about 30 minutes to clear my head and to get the creative juices flowing.

One of the most important things is having a system to check in with yourself regarding your needs and wants to be your best self. To feel well, it is important to be able to take and step back to assess yourself about your thoughts and emotions and to be able to review what works or doesn’t work. I often check in on my energy levels and try to manage my energy throughout the day. When it’s low, taking a nap or a break between meetings is important and necessary for being productive. Making sure I stay hydrated, fed, and energized has been important for me to enter my flow state of mind where creativity, focus, and productivity is amplified.

Thinking about your body as something that requires maintenance is a very effective way to approach wellness. We can manage stress better if we prioritize our body’s maintenance frequently, rather than reacting only when we feel burnout. I keep a journal to keep track of habits that work, to reflect on previous thoughts and actions, and to jot down anxious thoughts. To prioritize self-care, I put self-care activities in my calendar to make sure it is not forgotten with a heavy work schedule.

3. How has your career in corporate IT and/or personal trajectory led you to where you are with Floramind?

The healthcare system is one of the most complicated systems to understand. I have been frustrated about the various barriers that many people face when seeking healthcare services since I was young. While supporting my family, I saw how problematic the lack of culturally responsive healthcare practices can be for the patient experience. The various challenges faced by my Chinese immigrant family is not unique, other minorities also struggle with getting the services they need.

My previous background before entrepreneurship has been focused on information technology and operations. After working in different spaces such as the US Marines and Richemont, I realized that I want to focus on social impact projects. Rather than solving for network connectivity issues, now I look for the existing causes for inequity and deficiencies of services, such as healthcare. Working in those different roles shaped me to develop systems thinking for problem solving social issues. 

My first social venture was dawaCare. We focus on improving the patient experience for hospitals in Cameroon. We discovered that healthcare improvement efforts in many developing countries have been focused on increasing capacity by building more hospitals and hiring more staff.  Through interviews, we learned about the lack of follow-up care in these hospitals and decided to use that as a leverage point to improve patient outcomes. We worked on increasing the return for appointments for a Cameroonian hospital in 2017. This outcome is specifically important for patients that have malaria, TB, and typhoid, which without proper follow-up and medication may result in death. We had a simple solution – hiring locally-trained nurses, using text messages and phone calls to contact patients, and providing health tips alongside the reminders for appointments and medication.

This first foray in learning how to make an impact towards healthcare inspired me to look at other health systems. Learning more about how the healthcare system works in the US, I became driven to understand what can be done to close the gap for mental healthcare. FloraMind is essentially a manifestation of personal struggle for me, as well as my co-founders. Youth mental health is something we directly have a connection to due to our own mental health journey during our youth. My experience designing products and operations is now applied at FloraMind to develop prevention and early-intervention approaches for youth mental health using education. I work with mental health and education experts to develop our curriculum and training. We focus on resilience skills, reducing social stigma for seeking help, and cultural relevance to make the content relatable to young people.

4. FloraMind is dedicated to youth in providing mental health education. We’ve discussed the need for personalization in businesses and solutions that work in mental health literacy and support initiatives based off of demographic with a previous guest on ATEM Life, Kevin Dedner. Why did you choose to grow FloraMind with an eye at youth?

As a mental health advocate, I work on addressing one of the biggest problems our society is facing. In our opinion, it is not just about closing the gap of treatment by increasing accessibility. Instead, having culturally relevant practices that support intersectionality is needed. This means making sure that services are developed for the lived experience that different people have in order to have better outcomes. For mental health, youth are a group that has insufficient support for mental health. As teenagers, mental health challenges are often misunderstood as part of typical adolescent development, and as a result are either misdiagnosed or under-reported. When we learned that 50% of mental health conditions begin at age 14, we knew that we had to do something. Not only is it important to work with youth to improve their wellbeing, it can also lead to positive consequences for other factors, such as educational outcomes. When facing depression, youth are twice as likely to drop out of high school, and four times less likely to go to college. 

5.  In your view, what are actions or situations (social, economical) good mental health education can prevent that are current problems? What does a youth focused curriculum that’s different from say, the adult courses, or seniors (ages 65+) on offer from initiatives such as ThriveNYC

Youth, which we define as age 13 – 25, faces unique challenges. Brain development is still not fully completed until age 25, which affects how decisions are made and emotions are managed. Mental health problems are more likely to occur if certain traumatic events happen, such as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and other risk factors, such as housing and food insecurity, and lack of a reliable support network. 

Due to wide breadth circumstances experienced by people, it is important to understand how to have the right approach when working with young people. This means that we have an emphasis on facilitating discussions and talking about things that matter to the young people we work with. One thing that is different from other adult courses, is a strong focus on engagement and giving our audience a safe space to talk about mental health. Our courses are developed as a blend of informational content, discussion, and skill-development.

We use engaging video content, news, sports, pop culture, music such as hip-hop, to initiate conversations with young people. We also teach coping skills that can be used to develop resilience, such as gratitude journaling, mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing, and reflection. Our approach also includes working closely with our partners, such as schools and organizations to make sure we meet their needs.  

We are currently working with ThriveNYC on their Spaces To Thrive initiative. The initiative is focused on hosting mental health conversations at New York Public Library branches in areas that have limited access to mental health services. We lead public discussions in several branches in Staten Island, Bronx, and Manhattan, around topics such as social media usage, self-care and self-love, and stress management.

Our curriculum is developed with mental health and education professionals and is closely aligned with policy recommendations for mental health education and social emotional learning. Our emphasis on skill-development and discussion ensures that our audience is not just developing familiarity with concepts, they are able to develop coping strategies and apply skills for self-care. We are also inspired by the hip-hop education movement, and the drive for culturally responsive approaches for getting youth activated.

6. Teach us to  differentiate between identifying normal teenage behavior versus poor mental health in youth years.

Adolescent development during ages 13-18, happens at the same time as many different life choices are made. When teenagers are going through development, their physical body changes with hormones and puberty, social identity is beginning to form, and they start developing a sense of autonomy. This typical development is combined with the need to make certain decisions for themselves such as relationships, potential future career, plans for adulthood, and balancing needs for family, work, education, and self. It is also important to remember that many young people are resilient and able to grow from their struggles.

It is important to know that potential warning signs that indicate mental health challenges can be part of typical development. Typically, young people go through emotional rollercoasters and have to cope with the transitions they experience as they develop into adults. Warning signs should not be used to diagnose someone with a mental illness. Mental health diagnoses can only be made by appropriate clinical professionals.  Some examples of warning signs and symptoms of mental health challenges are social avoidance or withdrawal, disturbed sleep, hopelessness, low energy, body aches or pains, aggression, anxiety, and loss of interest in hobbies and activities.

The ways we talk about the difference between normal adolescent development and poor mental health are impact, severity, and duration. Impact can be described if behaviors are interrupting a person’s ability to to live, laugh, love, and learn. Severity is how much the challenges are causing difficulty in functioning needed for everyday life. Duration is how long the symptoms and problems persist. 

Mental health is a spectrum that ranges from wellness and unwell, in which we can bounce from different states of wellness during times of stress. Many of the warning signs listed earlier may be a result of mood changes or life circumstances. When grouped together with multiple warning signs, high impact, high severity, and persistence for more than two weeks, it indicates that there may be a need for seeking appropriate professional support. 

7. Since FloraMind’s inception, how often and through what initiatives have you engaged with youth? What’s your experience of having the unique vantage point and proximity of getting mental health related feedback from youth and teens?

Since the beginning of FloraMind, we have been focused on delivering in-person experiences for young people to learn about mental health. For the last two years, we have worked with multiple school partners and organizations working with students from middle schools, high schools, and colleges. We are proud to say that we have reached over 1000 young people, led over 65 workshops, and have worked in all 5 boroughs in NYC. We do this through partnerships with school leaders and ThriveNYC to provide our services to increase resilience for young people. We also work with corporate partners, such as Bareburger, to support workshops in schools on nutrition and mental health. We continue to cultivate partnerships with leaders from all sectors to increase our impact.

We believe that youth mental health needs to have inclusive design from young people. We have developed a Youth Advisory Council, in which sessions were held to get feedback from young leaders from diverse backgrounds to understand what needs to change for better youth mental health in NYC. We also worked to advise on policy recommendations for the mental health working group in the Chancellor Student Advisory Council. This working group provided recommendations for the NYC Department of Education to apply changes for mental health initiatives. The students from both groups gave us valuable insight about their concerns and feedback about existing challenges.

8. Letters to My Younger Self:  If you had any advice to give to your younger self, what would it be? 

First, be patient and focus. Have faith in yourself.

Second, recognize that in life there is pain and suffering. Struggle and conflict are the best teachers for how to be strong.

My younger self had a hard time thinking long-term and was very impatient. Being patient is truly a virtue. Patience is very much tied to grit, determination to get things done, and faith in yourself to be able to accomplish your goals. I developed patience later as I learned that the payoff of certain actions, habits, and tasks, may often take longer than expected. Things often don’t go as planned, and patience is the key to staying focused and grounded.

We all experience and deal with struggle and conflict in different ways. To develop resilience and to be antifragile, requires acceptance of those experiences. This quote from an unknown author has inspired me recently, “How thankful I am today, to know that all my past struggles were necessary for me to be where I am now.”  

To think about pain as a transformative tool to evolve and adapt into personal strength is something that I was first exposed to in the US Marines, and it would have been formative advice for my younger self to develop resilience.

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee

CEO of Mental Health Startup Henry Health, Kevin Dedner, On Mental Health Product Personalization, Mental Exhaustion, and the Sociological Factors Impacting Black Male Mental Health

Kevin Dedner, Founder & CEO of mental health startup Henry Health.
Photo Credit: Paul Newson
Name: Kevin Dedner
Role: Founder and CEO, Henry Health 
Based in:  Washington, DC
Age: 43

1. In your words, tell me who you are.

I am a father, a brother, and a son. For me, these are the most important roles I play in life. Outside of those, I am a founder and a leader working to reinvent what mental healthcare looks like.

2. How is Henry Health innovating the mental health space?

Henry Health is a disruptive digital community created to arrest the toxic stress, depression, and anxiety killing too many black men too soon. We are laser-focused on serving Black men because they have the lowest life expectancy of any population. Research tells us that our low life expectancy is connected to disproportionately high rates of unmanaged stress and untreated mental health issues. We are working to change that.

3. With your mission to increase the life expectancy of black men by 10 more years, what are some goals you and your team are looking forward to for Henry Health as it grows? 

We exist to ensure black men can show up whole, operate with joy and live with power. That’s just not a catchy phrase for us. Henry Health members will have the ability to track their wellbeing over time. We hope to learn from their progress and use that insight to inform the development of new features and services that support their continued healing and self-mastery. 

4. Henry Health recognizes the need for personalization in mental health solutions and products, and your team does so, by having created a pilot app that specifically serves the black, male demographic. You speak to the unique sociological pressures of the black male community that can affect physical, mental, and certainly emotional health. Can you educate us on some of the unique sociological factors or external stressors that impact the wellbeing of black males? 

That’s a really great question; thank you for asking it. Research shows that black individuals report more chronic stress than whites and are two to three times as likely to experience financial strain and housing-related stress. Black children experience Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) at a significantly higher rate than white children, and those experiences have long-term negative effects on health. In 2016, 60 percent of black children reported experiencing at least one ACE compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic white children. 

National data also shows that while black men are more likely to be impacted by trauma and stress, they are less likely to receive professional support. Black adults use mental health services at about half the rate of their white counterparts. 

Beyond the factors that commonly trigger mental health issues, Black men must also carry the day to day stress of being a Black man, which often presents itself unconsciously in normal activities. Black men report experiencing racial microaggressions —insults, invalidations, and interpersonal slights (subtle and sometimes unintentional) – which are linked to symptoms of anxiety and depression. Black men also suffer from impostor syndrome, a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his accomplishments in professional settings and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.  

5. You refer back often to how interrelated our mental wellbeing is with our physical wellbeing, like how the detriment of one’s mental health can lead to physical illness and substantially impact life expectancy rates. This alludes to the need that communities need to be approaching health, total health through a holistic lens. Do you observe this need being recognized and addressed in our communities today?

My general belief is that human beings have long held the answers to how to live well. Somewhere along the way, we lost our knowledge of the importance of self-care and restorative practices that help us cope with stress.  I think the loss is wrapped up in a myriad of reasons, including western work culture and increased exposure to technology. The bottom line is that we were not designed to be as busy as we are. For example, research tells us that most adults need 8 hours of sleep so that our brains can do the maintenance work required to preserve our memories and ensure peak performance. However, you often hear people brag about only needing a few hours of sleep. This is a cultural failure that we must work to correct. The good news is there is a movement afront that is centered on people making time to reflect, meditate, eat well, exercise, and so forth. These practices  are key to holistic wellbeing, and our communities are increasingly recognizing the link between these practices and overall health. It is important that these practices not be reserved for higher income or higher social status people. We must make sure that we reintroduce these tools to everyone in ways that make them accessible and relatable.

6. What has your personal experience or relationship been with the word, “self-care”?

I suffered from depression that was stimulated by mental exhaustion. As I was recovering from depression, self-care became extremely important to me. I think that we all need a self-care routine. My routine may not work for you. For example, I know folks who play video games to relieve their stress. That’s not my thing, but I am happy that they have found what work. All of us need our own practice.

7. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one. What are some actions you take to keep yourself well mentally, emotionally, and/or spiritually?

You are really digging deep. I wake up naturally every morning at about 515AM. I lay in bed for about ten mins. In this space, I pray and ask God to bless my day. I then go to the kitchen and put on some water for my coffee! During my first cup of coffee, I normally read a devotion of some type, some type of positive message. I then meditate and pray for about another 10 mins. By that time, noise starts to arise in my house so I become more active too. I move on with my day.  I also have rules with my team about how I schedule my time. I require a 30 minutes buffer between every meeting = I need time to process my thoughts and reflect on the meetings. I also make sure that I can pick up my kids at least two days a week from school. I walk to the train every day. I take the stairs and I am aware of where my food came from and what’s in it. These are just a few of my practices.

8. Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give to your younger self, what would it be? 

For some reason, I thought I had to have it all figured out. I created so much unneeded anxiety and pressure. Life works out. The Universe is always conspiring for our good. That’s the best advice I have for younger people and even my young self who still resides in me!

9. Would you care to share with us a couple of your favorite wellness or skincare picks? 

I have been using your products and they are delightful. Never thought, I’d be using an anti aging product, but I have gotten so many compliments on my skin, I think I will continue. Thank you for sharing your products with me!

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee

If you’re interested in joining Henry Health’s Therapy Pilot, sign up here . For more on Henry Health, follow their Instagram.

Vanessa Smith on Taking Mental Health Out of Traditional Clinical Settings, Using the Arts to Challenge Stereotypes, and Creating a Common Language to Talk Global Wellness

Name: Vanessa Monique Smith
Role: Design Strategist and Urban Planner
Based in: New York

Vanessa is a design strategist and urban planner that has directed programs across public and private sectors in New York City and abroad. Her work is driven by the idea that people’s interactions and reactions to places, spaces, and systems make our cities human. Vanessa uses creative methods and communication to engage people around place-based topics, and she has created interdisciplinary projects to improve service delivery, expand community-based assets, and achieve policy initiatives. She is currently an urban planner at Hester Street, a planning, design, and community development non-profit. Before returning to her planning roots, she developed and directed the mental health initiative, NYC Mural Arts Project at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). She co-founded and grew the social impact firm, 3×3 Design, where she was Director of Outreach and Research for over 4 years.  She has an MS in Urban Planning from Columbia University and a BA in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.

1. In your words, describe who you are 

A work in progress.

2. What made you passionate about mental health awareness? 

Mental health and mental illness are still stigmatized topics that aren’t discussed as much as they should be in constructive settings and alongside community development topics. NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene shares that 1 in 5 New Yorkers experiences a mental health disorder in a given year. Given that fact and the stigma that pervades society, it’s necessary to start discussing health in relation to the body and mind, and how our health interfaces with other aspects of society in our cities and towns. This affects all of us. 

“I Like You the Way You Are — Mental Health Has Many Faces” 4000 square foot mural in the Bronx developed with muralist Tova Synder

I think of several years back, about the suicide of a friend and 2 attempted suicides by others. It was painful. Sometimes people feel isolated like they can’t talk about what they are experiencing. If we don’t share our feelings it’s harder to work through challenges with a network of support. I feel we are starting to talk more about these issues, but I want there to be spaces for all of us to share our mental health and not fear judgement at the individual level.  And at a societal level, I want to incorporate mental health discussions into our policy and designs of services and spaces. 

3. Could you describe the NYC Mural Arts Project and what your role was? For first time readers, what is the role of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene? 

In October 2016, I launched the NYC Mural Arts Project within the NYC Department of Health and ran the program for three years. NYCMAP uses a collective mural making process to discuss mental health topics and foster relationship building among residents and community based organizations across New York City. I worked with artists, various community groups, people living with a mental health condition and the community at large to design and fabricate large scale, place-based murals. Through our 9 month process, using workshops and public events, we discovered the mural theme, co-designed the mural, and painted and installed the public artwork in highly visible locations across the 5 boroughs. For a given project, hundreds of people gave their support or input to make the mural. The mural fabrication and installation process enable a mural’s longevity for decades, so murals produced (some up to 4,000 square feet and 60 feet up in the air) are a longstanding testament to those conversations and community connections. 

The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) supports this program through City and State funding. DOHMH aim to increase access to supports outside of traditional clinical settings, while reducing stigmas and cultural barriers to mental health care. 

4. Can you highlight some of the mental health activists or artists you worked with at the NYC Mural Arts Project? 

Sure. First, I think the mental health peers (people with lived experience with a mental health condition) and mental health peer specialists (trained and certified people with a mental health condition who provide support and guidance to peers) I worked with were the backbone of each project.  They guided each project and worked with other residents to explore mental health topics in an informed and impassioned way. Second, there are several artists I worked with- Christopher Cardinale, Jon ‘Phes’ Souza, Aaron Lazansky, Alice Mizrachi, and Julia Cocuzza– come to mind that drove this type of immersive and large scale project. 

To make the scale of these murals and install them across NYC, in physically complex and dense backdrops, it truly ‘takes a village’ to make it all happen.  I am grateful for the range of people, with their skills and their voices, that worked with me to make these murals all over New York from the Bronx down to Staten Island. 

Mental health peers, students, and families explore mural symbols at Brooklyn Public Library event. 
One People- Eradicating labels and nurturing mental health support” (muralist Chirstopher Cardinale) installed in Brooklyn, NY
Mural installation for “Reflections of Ourselves and Each Other” with muralist Aaron Lazansky. 

5. What do you think about the role of art in fighting mental health stigma or bringing communities together?

Art as a ‘civic practice’ allows an artist to focus on building trust among the members of a community and on fostering a sense of belonging with all people involved throughout the creative process. Through this lens, art can promote rich conversations around place-based issues that affect mental health outcomes, while highlighting the humanity and power of the people involved in each community-driven project.  Mental health peers help structure these conversations around the mural theme and design in dialogue with other community members. These conversations aim at challenging stereotypes and creating a common language around mental health and mental illness for everyone involved.  

For example, in one project we reviewed the draft of the mural with mothers from a partnering school. While discussing possible designs to express mental health topics, one mother shared that she lived with being bi-polar and explained how she works through her ups and downs, while staying engaged in the school and with her kids. It was moving because she not only shared something so personal in a public forum, but also created a constructive platform to talk about her honest experience living with a mental illness.  Other people started sharing experiences they face or how they support someone they love that may be dealing with depression, anxiety, etc. It was a watershed moment among friends, colleagues and strangers. 

6. As an urban planner, what are some ideas you have on how to incorporate holistic wellness into broader city policies? 

This is a great question and one I am thinking a lot about recently. One of the biggest challenges I see is how can we promote wellness alongside policies, programs, and design that address climate change? The effects of climate change and disaster response affect people differently, and communities that have been historically marginalized will feel the effects of climate change more dramatically. 

I think about a scene in the movie Parasite during a heavy rain storm. One family’s home is flooded, they lose their possessions and have to spend the night in a gym with hundreds of other people affected by the storm.  Another family is able to enjoy watching the storm in spacious comfort on higher ground. How does the trauma of dealing with the rain, loss of your home, and the uncertainty of tomorrow burden people? How do our urban systems, design and policies affect our wellbeing and support (or hinder) us?  

Thinking about the first family’s experience we could incorporate a lens of mental health into: new policy around rapid response after a disaster, retrofitting public infrastructure and housing, flood mitigation, urban design, and new types of place-based services and programs we can develop in and with our communities. I am half Puerto Rican, and that scene resonated with me as I think about how my family and others have managed the after effects of Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes of the past few months. The anxiety and uncertainty of these situations can have a heavy effect on wellbeing. 

7. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one (i.e., morning routines or evening rituals). What are some actions you take to keep yourself well (mentally, spiritually, physically, and emotionally)?

Over the years, the one thing I find constant in my routine, wherever I am, is carving out time to walk with no specific destination, but to wander mindfully. It helps me find awareness and explore my thoughts in relation to the people, activities, architecture, and infrastructure around me. I find it a meditative practice that can help me gain balance, clarity, and creativity. 

8. Would you care to share a couple of your favorite wellness and/or skincare picks? 

Cooking is a creative driver for me; by using all the senses it helps me feel grounded in the present, which, at times, can be difficult. Flavors of food pervade everything we eat, they affect our perception and give us an instant feeling in the moment. Combining foods and flavors is an interplay that, at first glance, don’t appear complimentary but can support each other. Thinking about this, it mirrors how I strive for wellness: taking different experiences, beauty and pain in life with different people and experiences, and finding complementary ways to grow from and with those people, places, and experiences that are a part of you. A small dash of sugar can play well with acid or salt. Sharing this with others and seeing how they enjoy the food enlivens the experience. 

Jumping to a different topic- skincare- I definitely like routine here, and mixing high and low price points. Currently, I am using an Avocado Facial Toner, The Ordinary’s Hyaluronic Acid Serum and Caffeine Solution Eye Serum, Sunday Riley’s C.E.O Vitamin C Brightening Serum, face cream, and Nature Republic’s SPF 50 Daily Sun Block. At night, I swap out the vitamin c serum and sunscreen for Ole Henriksen’s Retin-ALT power serum. 

9. Letters to My Younger Self:  If you had any advice to give to your younger self, what would it be? 

Be honest with your needs and share what you’re feeling with others. Since ATEM also has skincare, I would also tell my younger self to use sunscreen to protect the skin and get a serum! But really, communicate those feelings, they’re real and should be shared.

For access to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Mental Health Hotline, please click here.

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee

Edited by Susan Im

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Remake CEO, Ayesha Barenblat On Conscientious Consuming, Inconsistencies in Demographic Representation in the “Sustainable Fashion” Industry, and Remake’s Mission to Improve the Wellbeing of 75+ Million Women

Name: Ayesha Barenblat
Title: Founder & CEO of Remake
Based in: San Francisco, CA
 

Ayesha Barenblat is a social entrepreneur with a passion for building sustainable supply chains that respect people and our planet. With over a decade of leadership to promote social justice and sustainability within the fashion industry, she founded Remake to ignite a movement on conscientious consuming. Remake’s films, stories and immersive journeys rebuild human connections with the women who make our clothes. Ayesha is passionate about how our fashion is made, who brings our clothes to life and where our discarded fashion ends up. She has worked with brands, governments, and labor advocates to improve the lives of the women who make our clothes. She led brand engagement at Better Work, a World Bank and United Nations partnership to ensure safe and decent working conditions within garment factories around the world. She was head of consumer products at BSR, providing strategic advice to brands including H&M, Levi Strauss and Company, Marks and Spencer, and Nike on the design and integration of sustainability into business. She holds a master’s in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley.

1. In your words, describe who you are.

Global citizen, wife, mother, first time female founder, Pakistani-American, fierce advocate for social justice. 

2. You founded Remake on a mission to improve the well-being of the 75+ million women who make our clothes. What changes have you seen since your inception through your work? 

When we started Remake sustainable fashion was a niche conversation. Today we have fashion magazines bringing on full-time sustainability editors, and from runways to red carpets sustainability is front and center. At Remake we are really proud of the work we do every day to ensure that sustainability continues to move from niche to mainstream. 

Today studies show that more and more people want to shop ethically and are willing to spend more for sustainable fashion. According to a study done by Nielsen, 55 percent of mostly millennial consumers, across 60 countries said they would pay more for products provided by companies that support positive social and environmental impact.  Morgan Stanley’s research concurs with this; 58 percent of 16 to 24 year-olds said ethics are “very or somewhat important” compared to 49 percent of those 55 and up. 

Remake’s own community is 150,000 people strong with over 300 Ambassadors in 32 states who as part of our #wearyourvalues campaign have committed to buy less and better. Building up the next generation of women’s rights and climate justice leaders through the lens of fashion has been the greatest source of inspiration for me. I sincerely believe that the future is bright!

3. You talk a lot about the labor exploits and environmental destruction of the fast fashion industry. Do you think fast fashion is a reflection of a general consumer trend that reflects today’s public’s demand for immediateness and for constant newness? What do you think are the implications of this?

In the last decade, our clothes have been coming to us too fast and too cheap and the human and planetary costs of this hyperconsumption model are hidden from our collective consciousness. I believe both the general consumer wanting new outfits for the next IG selfie plays a part but it is also companies like Amazon that have conditioned us to with one click to get whatever we want, whenever we want. The implications of this includes: 

  • Planetary destruction: The largely unregulated churn and burn of fast fashion is putting too much pressure on our planet. 12.8 million tons of clothing are sent to landfills in the US every year. This is a football field filled 14 ft deep with clothes. An estimated 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the apparel/footwear industry. Main cotton producing countries like China and India are already facing water shortages, and with water consumption projected to go up by 50% by 2030, these cotton-growing nations face the dilemma of choosing between cotton production and securing clean drinking water.
  • Fast fashion disempowers women. With fast fashion you trap a generation of young women into poverty. 75 million people are making our clothes today. 80% is made by women who are only 18 – 24 years old. It takes a garment worker 18 months to earn what a fashion brand CEO makes on their lunch break. A majority of them earn less than $3 per day. The biggest corners fast fashion cuts are human.Cheap clothes are made by underage workers entering the industry as young as 14 to work long hard hours (an avg. of 14 hrs per day in sweatshops) for low wages, while dealing with sexual harassment.
  • Fast fashion is expensive for consumers and the planet. Fast fashion is designed to be replaced quickly. Clothing literally falls apart ending up in landfills rather than making it to consignment shops even if you donate. In the U.S. only 10% of donated clothes get resold. The rest flood landfills where they can sit for up to 200 years leaving toxic chemicals and dyes to contaminate local soil and groundwater. Our slow fashion community has found that investing in fewer higher quality clothes actually saves us money because each piece lasts longer. 

The good news is that we as everyday shoppers are powerful. How we buy is how we vote. If a ground swell of shoppers demand sustainable fashion, the market will respond.  Moreover social media has democratized access, where we can directly talk to brands through Twitter or Instagram to ask for more transparency. A strong campaign can make or break brands-sometimes overnight. At Remake our big audacious goal is to remake the closets of 1MM women by 2025. 

4. How do you shop? Do you choose to be intentional about every fashion buying decision you make? What are some tips for readers on how to “wear your values”?

I have had the pleasure in my career to sit down, talk to, break bread with thousands of the women who make our clothes. The resilience and hard work of this forgotten #girlboss at the other end of the supply chain is my biggest inspiration. It’s these interactions that changed my relationship to my closet. So I do think deeply about what I buy knowing how much human effort goes into every piece of clothing.  Before I buy something I usually ask myself do I really need it? Will I wear it multiple times? And what will this piece say about me?

I tend to first and foremost shop in my closet because I do believe that loved clothes last. I love some of my forever owned or vintage treasures. I love Pact and Coyuchi’s natural breathable materials for intimates and pajamas. 

I also rely on rental platforms like Rent The Runway. It’s a way to look fresh without buying more whenever I am giving a talk. 

In terms of tips I’d say first let go of the guilt. There are big and small ways, regardless of your wallet size, to “wear your values.” Some ideas include:

Taking stock of what you own. Are piles of clothes sitting there and making you unhappy? only keep what you think you will wear at least 30 times and host a swap party for the rest. The next time you want to buy something consider this: will you wear it at least 30 times? If not it’s best to walk away. If it costs less than your cup of coffee, know that women were exploited in making the piece and, again, walk away.

Embrace preloved clothes: there are amazing vintage, rental or consignment options. Consider “shopping” in a good friend’s or sibling’s closet (don’t forget to ask first!).

Care for your clothes like the good friends that they are. Wash on cold, line dry, skip the dry cleaner and mend.. Do remember to invest in quality, not quantity.

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5. How do you see the fast fashion landscape evolving in the next 3-5 years? 

I see the demand for fast fashion decreasing as demand shifts, particularly as GenZ comes into their consumer power valuing individuality and customization over trends. I see this firsthand in conversations I have with young change-makers all over the country who worry about climate change and our planet’s future. Moreover studies show that 89% of Gen Z would rather buy from a company supporting social and environmental issues over one that does not

I also see the fashion industry being pushed toward more transparency. Activism is back with women leading the way. From Greta Thunberg to Jane Fonda, there’s been an influx of consciousness that’s here to stay. From Extinction Rebellion to our own community, I see a future where more and more people are taking to the streets to demand a fashion industry that puts people and our planet first. 

Finally circularity is becoming more than just a buzzword, from inroads in sustainable materials to a growing interest in a minimalist lifestyle and capsule wardrobes. I am excited by breakthroughs in technology such as Amber Cycle and innovative approaches to reducing waste such as the Renewal Workshop

6. Where do you still see glaring problems or lack of solutions in the realization of actual “sustainable fashion” in your industry?

At first glance, the term ‘sustainable fashion’ seems fairly straightforward. However, when you dig deeper you realize that there isn’t a globally agreed definition. Many brands have co-opted the rising interest in sustainability to make exaggerated marketing claims, with some brands straight up greenwashing. Without regulation, a company can make claims to be sustainable and confuse end shoppers. 

Fashion, at its core is centered around the constant production and use of new items, which is inherently unsustainable. Textile waste isn’t just a problem at the end of the lifecycle of a piece of clothing. It’s also an issue right at the start. During most manufacturing processes, around 20% of fabric is discarded onto the cutting room floor after garment patterns are cut from fabric. At Remake, our growing conscious community knows that we can not just buy our way out of this mess, but instead we have to buy less and keep clothes in circulation longer.

Finally, sustainable fashion suffers from its fair share of socioeconomic, race, and body image issues. For all of its unethical production, fast fashion brands make fashion accessible and affordable to the masses. In this way, they fuse the division between classes. Sustainable fashion, on the other hand, can be prohibitively expensive due to higher base costs that include sourcing costly eco-friendly natural materials and paying people a fair wage for sewing garments. 

I am also struck by how non diverse sustainable fashion conversations and conferences are. Even though the people and communities most impacted by fashion’s decisions are people of color. While it’s encouraging to see so many of the fashion industry’s who’s who come together to talk about sustainability at these summits, we are all remiss in addressing a core truth: that the fashion industry is built on the oppression of black and brown women, an institutionalized form of racism inherited from a colonial past. 

Equally underrepresented in the sustainable fashion world are plus size women. For many women, the path to adopting the slow fashion movement is blocked as brands fail to offer inclusive sizing. Looking into the issue further, the problem often lies in the fact that so many sustainable brands are sole ventures or small, independent companies which make it difficult to offer broader, more inclusive product ranges.

7. Where do you see connections between your work in sustainable fashion and social justice with mental health? 

Around the globe, women dominate the workforce of the garment factory industry. Unfortunately, the working environment for many of these women includes pervasively low wages, untenable hours, sexual harassment and violence and hazardous health conditions. This takes a significant toll on the physical and mental health of the women who make our clothes.

 Fast fashion is inherently violent given its focus on trends, fast turnaround and cheap prices which results in unpredictable and long hours at rock bottom wages. In essence cheap clothes mentally and physically exploit women and engulf  generations of women into a cycle of poverty. 

On every Remake journey, the women we meet tell us that they are sacrificing their own well-being to keep their children in school and secure a better life for their families. Yet, she is making barely enough to pay rent and put food on the table. I remember a story of one woman that haunts me to this day. Her garment job paid her so little, that when she had a tooth ache, she had to take out a predatory loan and take up sex work on the side to pay the loan back. 

8. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one. What are some actions you take to keep yourself well mentally, physically, spiritually, and/or emotionally? 

Every morning I take a few moments to sit outside with a hot cup of chai, taking in the sounds of birds and feeling the wind on my face before I get dressed for the day or dive into email.. I find this small morning routine helpful in centering me. 

Similarly my evening dinners with my husband and 7 and 9 year old sons is sacred. We are a no device family while we make dinner, sit together to share our day and clean up . Children have a wonderful way of keeping you focused on the present moment rather than running a never ending mental to-do list. 

I keep a “happy folder” in my email in-box. Being a woman of color, and a first time female founder can be hard and it is lonely. Sometimes self doubt creeps in on whether and how much of a difference we are making?  So I save emails from our community, partners and Ambassadors in my happy folder – this includes testimonials of how our films and stories have moved people to join our Movement, notes about how we helped someone remake  her closet, simplify her life or how buying less has made someone happier. Whenever I’ve had a rough day, I visit my happy email folder to remind me why we do this work and why it matters.

9. Would you share with us a couple of your favorite wellness or skincare picks? 

I am a “less is more” type of person. I once horrified a make-up artist at a photo shoot when sharing that all I use on my skin is soap and water! I do my best to eat what’s in season, mostly leafy greens and vegetables and believe being outside and eating well is the best way to make my skin glow and to feel good inside and out.

10.  Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give to your younger self, what would it be?

I would tell my younger self – you are enough. That being an immigrant, with a different sounding name, making it in a new country may be really scary at 19, but this will one day be your superpower. That being from two different worlds will allow you to have so much empathy, an ability to move fluidly between cultures, truly see the humanity in people and be a global citizen. 

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Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee

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