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How Kicking The Stigma Action Grant recipient Project Healthy Minds is bringing mental health awareness in a digital age

Since 2021, Project Healthy Minds has been a founding partner organization of Kicking The Stigma. The two have collaborated on public service announcements, corporate training and galas.

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Ahead of the Indianapolis Colts' third annual 'Mental Health Awareness' game this Sunday, the team wanted to spotlight one of Kicking The Stigma's Action Grant recipients, Project Healthy Minds.

"Like any one of our Kicking The Stigma grantees, they do incredible work. But Project Healthy Minds obviously has a special place in our hearts," Colts Co-Owner and Vice Chair Kalen Jackson said. "Anyone who's had the chance to look at our grantee list or description of it, you know we really focus on the state of Indiana. Project Healthy Minds is one of our few national grantees. And it's because they do affect the state of Indiana and they also affect the national level which I think is really important because part of our vision and mission is to be that leading example and to be the catalyst for other organizations and other sports teams or even individuals who have a platform and have the ability to speak out on this and make an impact."

The concept for Project Healthy Minds came from founder and CEO Phillip Schemer after a get-together with friends where he learned of the impact of the rapper Logic's 2017 hit song, '1-800-273-8255'. He believed that its success correlated with an overarching theme he'd noticed in millennials and Gen Z.

"For me, I sort of feel like there is this pervasive generational loneliness that exists for everyone that I know my age," 32-year-old Schermer said. "They could be living in Indy, or in Pittsburgh or New York or Los Angeles or Florida and it doesn't matter where you are. Most people that I know struggle with - as they get older, they feel lonely, but they never want to talk about it. So, they always talk about it in this coded language. They say they're burned out at work or they talk about how hard dating is and all of the million versions of these things, but they all tie back to one core idea that people seem to be in our generation talking more and more about mental health and that people seem to be pretty lonely.

"And at the same time that everybody's saying that to me, I learned about the impact of the song. I'm just like, 'There's no way the number one song in America is a hip-hop song about depression and it's inspiring all these people to call the suicide hotline and that isn't related in some way to the fact that everyone that I know seems to be sort of lonely and depressed."

As Schermer and his cohorts spent years speaking with several clinicians and public health experts to gain more insight before starting the nonprofit, he said he learned three key reasons why roughly 60 percent of the 65 million Americans who have a mental health condition do not receive care.

"The first reason is the stigma," Schermer said. "People don't feel comfortable talking about or acknowledging that they may need some mental health help and so they never seek care. The second barrier in the journey is even if people have the courage to overcome the stigma, most people have no idea where to go to find mental health care. It's very hard to find the right mental health service for you. Especially if there's a taboo around the topic, people are already looking to be avoidant. So, if they try to find a therapist or a psychiatrist or a support group or a crisis line - if they don't know where to go or know what they need or if they find it overwhelming, what do they do? They put it off. They say, 'I'll deal with this tomorrow.' But tomorrow becomes next week, next month, next year. The third barrier is the cost of care. It's expensive."

With that information in mind, Schermer felt that the creation of Project Healthy Minds could help break down the first two barriers that people face.

"We had this aha moment and we were like, 'Well, holy crap. This doesn't need to be just a one-off song," Schermer said. "Why don't we take these two mechanics and why don't we repeat them in an organization and make it a core strategy of a nonprofit?"

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To help de-stigmatize mental health, they began partnering with culture-makers such as various actors, musicians, digital influencers and more who have used their voices to bring more awareness to the cause. To give people the resources to find help, Project Healthy Minds created the world's first digital mental health marketplace to democratize access to mental health services.

"I just think that it's morally egregious that in 2023 in America, that it is easier to book a flight, hotel or restaurant reservation than it is just to find mental health services," Schermer said. "We're in sort of the beta phase of the technology, but in the first 18 months that we've had it live, we've helped more than 300,000 Americans and we do so by partnering with people like the Colts who are doing the anti-stigma work. That then creates the conditions where people are willing to search for mental health services."

In 2021, Project Healthy Minds became a founding partner organization of Kicking The Stigma. A collaboration that Jackson said has been mutually beneficial.

"They have really become such a true partner," Jackson said. "They're true partners in the sense that I really feel like over the last three years, they just kind of started when we started Kicking The Stigma. So, we've really been able to grow together and alongside one another and really support each other in the things that we're doing. Whether that be their inaugural gala they had this year and they always support ours. Anything that we're doing, they're always willing and able to step up."

Jackson also serves as a board member for Project Healthy Minds, where one of her top responsibilities is to spread the word about the efforts of the nonprofit.

"It's a lot of trying to help make connections and highlight some of the amazing work that they're doing," Jackson said. " I think one of the biggest reasons we started the grant program was as much as there is a shortage on resources for mental health, there are a lot of amazing organizations that do in fact exist. It's just really difficult to find and identify the quality ones. And so, that's another way they're a leading example of that. We're just trying to highlight that through my work as a board member and just being involved with them."

In the two years since the organizations started working together, they've collaborated on public service announcements (PSAs), corporate training and public speaking events.

"Kalen and the Colts have been transformational partners for Project Healthy Minds," Schermer said. "First of all, we've partnered on making Kicking The Stigma PSAs and as a result, we've been able to serve a huge number of people in the state of Indiana because people follow the Colts. And so, that's been one amazing part - we've taken our technology and partnered with the anti-stigma PSA camp as a way to reach through community outreach and help folks in Indiana find mental health services.

"The second is we believe that we can all move faster when we work together. I remember when Kalen did the first event for Kicking The Stigma. Carson Daly from the Today Show was on our board, and we were able to get Carson to moderate that conversation that she had convened with those NFL players on mental health. Which I think really was like the first time that a group of (active) NFL stars had ever gotten together to talk openly about their mental health, which is really an amazing thing."

As Kicking The Stigma and Project Healthy Minds continue their work to bring mental health awareness, Schermer said he hopes teams around the NFL will follow suit and use their platform to help create change.

"If I had to say this at a high level, the Colts are setting the example of what every NFL team should be doing – using its platform to change public attitudes around mental health," Schermer said. I think that there is this unique opportunity that exists. I think that athletes generally and football players specifically shape the American public's understanding of what strength looks like and sounds like. And so, when you have an organization like the Colts using their platform and platforming their athletes talking about mental health and showing that vulnerability can be a strength. It has an incredible de-stigmatization effect on the country. It has an incredible impact in changing public attitudes on mental health and I hope that every other NFL team takes a page out of the Colts playbook and does the same thing."

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