Heidi Luerra on Stigma, Having Family That is Mentally Ill and Educating Employees on Mental Health

Name: Heidi Luerra
Title/Role: Founder & CEO, RAW Artists Inc. 
Author, The Work of Art 
Based in: Los Angeles, CA 
Age: 35

On this week’s chapter of exploring holistic wellness at ATEM, we interviewed Heidi. Heidi Luerra is the Founder & CEO of the world’s largest independent arts organization, RAW Artists Inc. She’s also authored the book, The Work of Art, A No-Nonsense Field Guide for Creative Entrepreneurs, which speaks to tips to fellow or aspiring entrepreneurs and her personal journey as an entrepreneur.

1. In your words, describe who you are.

I’m half creative and half business with a knack for bridging the gap between both worlds. I am determined to spend my short and unknown amount of time on this planet on worthwhile projects that make a difference, and I’ve applied the quote “be the change you want to see in the world,” to my life quite literally. When it comes to my entrepreneurial endeavours I’ve grown projects from nothing and no funding into thriving organizations. 

2. Give us a day in your life.

The day starts with coffee. I have meetings with our technology and marketing departments, as well as an employee performance and management meeting. I spend some time getting tax prepared. I coordinate some industry invites to a few people to attend our RAW Hollywood showcase. I get on a call with our agency contractor in regards to some murals we’re contracting artists to paint. I then jump on another conference call with my board members to discuss projections and ship a few of my books (This all happens before lunchtime). 

3.   How did you discover an interest in mental health? 

I’ve come to realize the importance of sharing our personal stories and the ways in which we’re all affected by mental health. While writing The Work of Art, I wrestled with whether or not I should write about it. Not just because of the sensitive nature of the topic of mental health, but also because I was guilty of contributing to the stigma surrounding mental illness. My mother was diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder (“Schizoaffective disorder is a chronic mental health condition characterized primarily by symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as mania and depression” – NAMI.org) when I was seven years old. Very few people in my life knew this (up until the book was published), and this was intentional. Seeing my share of the battles this affliction has brought in, in every aspect of her life, was and has been difficult. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her or me, and I didn’t want anyone presuming I might be at risk of having the disorder too as her daughter. It’s not something I’m proud of, but I was largely mum about my close relationship with mental illness for a long time. In general, I have been on the supporting end of my mother’s illness in many ways, which has its own set of challenges. As the conversation has started to bubble up, it’s encouraged me to be more vocal about my own experience with having a mentally ill mother.  What I do know and believe is that more people need to discuss mental illness. It’s so much more prevalent than we as a society currently dares to admit. Which simply means, it’s up to this same society to speak up and to be advocates for awareness and initiatives that offer mental health support.

4. Do you think popular culture romanticizes, caricaturizes or accurately portrays mental health illness (ie. Amazon Prime’s Modern Love Series’ episode E03: Take Me As I Am, Whoever I Am ). Any signs of progress you find encouraging?

I think Hollywood has romanticized just about everything, and mental illness is no exception. I do appreciate the growing interest surrounding it. Regardless of how well the subject is packaged, the more we talk about it or “watch it,” the more we’ll ultimately be able to better understand it, and the better we’ll be able to begin our work in actively breaking down barriers we’ve built to exacerbate the stigma and misunderstandings against a very serious health concern, with very real and often debilitating symptoms. At the very least though, I will give it to popular culture for adapting art, memes, etc about mental health and raising its awareness.

5. What is a common misconception about mood disorders, schizoaffective disorder, or schizophrenia that you believe should be corrected? 

That these illnesses are in some way within the individual’s control. That they could do something about them if they just “ate this diet” or “tried this natural organic drug” or “snapped out of it”. This kind of misconception and stigma that’s encouraged by people in our communities actively prohibits people affected by mental illness from seeking out treatment that can help like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or medication.

Food for thought. Consider these words by world renowned neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, on the interesting idiosyncrasy existing and dominating our cultural understanding, that the brain and mind is separate, when in fact, the faculties of the mind (and one’s emotions thereof) cannot act independently from the influences of the brain on the basis of science; Let us move one step further then, and think about the way we perceive health: how body (and skin: hello ATEM!), mind, and emotional health is for some reason, discussed, approached, and valued differently, as if they move independently from each other. What does this mean about the way we currently stigmatize mental health? :

The distinction between diseases of “brain” and “mind,” between “neurological” problems and “psychological” or “psychiatric” ones, is an unfortunate cultural inheritance that permeates society and medicine. It reflects a basic ignorance of the relation between brain and mind. Diseases of the brain are seen as tragedies visited on people who cannot be blamed for their condition, while diseases of the mind, especially those that affect conduct and emotion, are seen as social inconveniences for which sufferers have much to answer. Individuals are to be blamed for their character flaws, defective emotional modulation, and so on; lack of willpower is supposed to be the primary problem.”

Antonio Damasio, neurologist and author of Looking for Spinoza (translated in over 30 languages) and Descarte’s Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain

6. Was there ever a time you felt like you had to bear the burden of your mother’s mental health illness alone? What factors limited your or your family’s ability to receive support (mental, emotional, or financial)?

Absolutely. I’m the eldest of four children. My parents are divorced and my mom is not married. In addition to running a company, being a wife and just a regular adult, I had to be her emotional support structure and that was a lot to balance. It was lonely. My mom’s well-being and health was constantly on my mind. Most people don’t experience having a family member that is mentally ill to the point where he/she is unable to work and make an independent living– having a family member needing government assistance, and essentially being forced to live off an impossibly low monthly income… and that this results in having financial + care responsibilities fall on the affected family member’s family. 

Living in a place like downtown Los Angeles which is rampant with homelessness, you can see the severe impact that mental illness without a support structure or financial stability creates. It’s evident just walking down the street. If my mother didn’t have me or my siblings, she could very well have been one of those people. That is a heavy load to carry at times. 

This paints a more dramatic picture of the effects of mental health, but the following is a record detailing an encounter with a patient named Elliot who struggled with a neurological condition too– the casualties resulting from a lack of support for a very real health problem are similar to that from the experiences of Heidi’s and her family’s struggle in caring for their mother and the failure of current health policies to make treatment and support of mental health and mental health illness accessible: “His wife, children, and friends could not understand why a knowledgeable person who was properly forewarned could act so foolishly, and some among them could not cope with this state of affairs. There was a first divorce. Then a brief marriage to a woman of whom neither family nor friends approved. Then another divorce. Then more drifting, without a source of income, and as a final blow to those who still cared and were watching in the sidelines, the denial of social security disability benefits.” 

7. What can others do to support? 

I think people can be of support by simply and actively offering an ear or shoulder for friends and family affected. People can vocally support the issue amongst their communities, or help find aid or resources for those they know that are affected by it. On a more macro level, there needs to be legislation changes: more funding, and more treatment and rehabilitation programs– more resources put towards mental health and wellness.

8. As the CEO of RAWartists.com, a large events and discovery platform that showcases and highlights independent talents of all creative disciplines, you are exposed to creatives touching all points of work. What does the wellness/health landscape look like from your end?

The statistics in the creative and entertainment industries in regards to mental health are quite staggering. It’s a big part of the culture we work with, and my team and I are sensitive to these aspects of the artistic mind. Last year we brought in cognitive behavior therapist Dr. Rosy Benedicto (who also contributed to The Work of Art) to speak to our team about  how to handle and approach situations with someone that might have a mood disorder, be suffering from depression and/or suicidal. Educating ourselves on mental health is fundamental for best communicating and supporting our fellow creatives.

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

My best self works out 4-5 times per week, drinks plenty of water (mainly La Croix) and meditates daily. However, just like most everyone else, I have office “weeks” (months). I walk to work, love spin class and am most recently experimenting with kickboxing. I think physical activity really does balance out the rest. When all that fails, a nice glass of wine with a close friend is the ticket!

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

You’ve got this more than you believe you do. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. 

Learn more about RAW Artists here and follow its Instagram here.

Interviewed and edited by Susan Yoomin Im

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