“Mental health is one of the defining issues of our generation,” says Phil Schermer, founder and CEO of Project Healthy Minds, a new, millennial-driven non-profit tackling the growing mental health crisis. The organization launched on Oct. 1, coinciding with the National Alliance of Mental Illness’ Mental Illness Awareness Week taking place from Oct. 4-10.
Project Healthy Minds is building a free, consumer-friendly, one-stop digital referral platform that aims to increase access to care by making it fast and easy to find and navigate available resources. “If you just google mental health, there are more than a billion hits on google,” Schermer continues. “It shouldn’t shock anyone that too many people get lost trying to find help and give up. We believe we can solve that by building a free digital discovery platform to help make it easier for people to find help.”
Schermer’s concept has been in the making for the past two years, born out of a set of casual conversations, but the effect of the novel coronavirus pandemic on mental health across age ranges highlighted the need for an organization like Project Healthy Minds. “It’s hard to overstate how urgent this crisis is,” he says, adding that “this pandemic has only exacerbated and moved forward our timeline. There are [young] people dying every week because they’re too scared to ask for help or because they can’t find help or because they give up because it’s so frustrating to try to find help.”
“No matter who you’re talking to, no matter what industry they’re in,” continues Schermer, who is 29 years old, explaining the phenomenon he noticed years ago that inspired the organization, “you have young people working long hours in a 24/7 media environment. They’re stressed out and they’re burnt out, whether people use the term mental health explicitly or not.”
“I only knew the issues from a basic, cultural, social lens,” he adds, which is a common level of awareness. “I decided to dig into the numbers to really understand what was at the core of what was going on and the numbers floored me. 615 million people worldwide diagnosed with a mental health condition, and 60 percent of people diagnosed don’t get treatment. That shocked me. If 6 in 10 diabetics in America didn’t get insulin it would be a front-page story.”
The staggering numbers continued to motivate Schermer, and his further research broke the problem into three primary issues. “The first is the stigmatization of the health topic, people aren’t willing to ask for help,” he says. “The second is that it’s extraordinarily hard to find help … And then the third is the lack of access to treatment and insurance issues.”
Project Healthy Minds is currently focused on combating stigmatization and access to information and resources. In addition to the digital discovery platform, the organization will attack the first issue in what Schermer describes as a “culture first way,” by designing a multi-platform anti-stigma campaign featuring culture-makers and influencers.
“The efforts that have existed historically in this space really struggle to break through to young people,” he notes. “[Young] people have a very different relationship both with technology, the issue of mental health, and experience of culture than the older generation had and so there is this really unique opportunity to just do something fundamentally different.”
The organization’s approach to addressing the lack of access to mental health resources is rooted in data. “On average in the U.S. it is 11 years between when someone starts to exhibit a mental health symptom and when they actually get help,” Schermer notes, and adds that the new organization’s multi-platform campaign and digital discovery platform will have “people in their 20s, young people, at the center of designing this, then we back it with the experts, with the doctors, with the marketers, with the Hollywood agents and executives and celebrities.”
The group of professionals, influencers and leaders that has come together to support Project Healthy Minds taps expertise from the business, entertainment, healthcare, public policy and technology industries. The organization’s board members include Paul Dalio (the filmmaker behind Touched by Fire), Chris Zarou (founder and CEO of Visionary Music Group and Visionary Records), Brian Offutt (former svp of operations for Viacom’s Nickelodeon Group) and Tera Hanks (president of Westbrook Inc.). The advisory council includes entertainment leaders such as Universal Music Group evp of marketing Andrew Kronfeld, UTA founding partner and board member Peter Benedek, and former CFO of Viacom’s Music Group Glenn Briffa, as well as mental health experts like Dr. Ray DePaulo, chairman of the National Network of Depression Centers and Dr. Tom Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health for 13 years. “It is not scientists versus celebrities,” Schermer clarifies, “it’s both of them together to create an interdisciplinary solution.” Others on the advisory council include former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Yates, Greg Levin, vp of strategic initiatives at Pursuit and former director, social impact, at BlackRock and WME’s Brandon Shaw.
“Too many people have never really been involved in a mental health non-profit before, that’s got to change,” he continues, noting that people are often quicker to get involved with other health issues than with mental health. “We need everybody in the boat rowing together if we’re actually going to confront an issue of this magnitude. That’s the most important thing in this moment.”
Added DePaulo in a statement, “More than two decades after the Surgeon General called on us to reinvent our approach to mental health, we still need a breakthrough program – combining the best of the scientific community with the private sector and philanthropists – to confront this crisis. Project Healthy Minds can be that breakthrough effort.”