Founder of To Write Love, Jamie Tworkowski on Life
Jamie Tworkowski is a person I admire greatly. As the founder of a nationally beloved nonprofit that speaks up on issues surrounding mental health, his empathy is unmatched. He is similarly wise beyond his years and kinder than the average person walking down the street. To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA) began as his attempt to tell a story and help a friend in 2006. TWLOHA is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide and exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery. I had the pleasure of seeing Jamie on his book tour for his book “If You Feel Too Much.” The book is a collection of stories about life, loss, and the unbelievable experiences that add color to our world, like meeting Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter and visiting survivors of Hurricane Katrina. I asked him for his insight as a leader in mental health awareness about growing up, expectations, and becoming who you want to be.
Evelyn: What was a particularly potent challenge you faced in your college years (around 18 to 24)? How did you overcome or cope with it?
Jamie Tworkowski: My first serious girlfriend struggled with depression. Mental health was completely foreign to me back then. I realized that I had a lot to learn, and that it's not enough to have good intentions. I loved this girl but I didn't understand what she was dealing with, and so I didn't know how to help her. And when that relationship ended, I would say that was the beginning of my own struggle with depression. I suppose I've been learning and coping ever since. Counseling was a big help, and so was taking anti-depressants in more recent years.
E: How did you deal with the expectations of everyone around you about what steps you should be taking in life in your teens or early 20’s?
JT: I think my own dreams and expectations were greater than anything anyone else was placing on me. My college years were unique because in addition to going to college, I was working full-time in surf industry, which was the field I was hoping to go into. I had basically already started my career and ended up coming to a place of feeling like I had to choose, college or career. I ended up dropping out of college my junior year.
E: Was there a specific person who gave you any wisdom about navigating adulthood and what was it?
JT: I wouldn't say it was any one person back then, or any specific piece of wisdom. I had a great relationship with my parents. There were a couple guys I really looked up to - one was a youth pastor and one was my Young Life leader. And I had good friends as well. I felt supported to follow my heart and chase my dreams.
E: What are some steps you take to make sure you’re taking care of your mental health, especially in the empathetic position TWLOHA puts you in?
JT: I just finished a six-week sabbatical. It's huge to have a break from work, to be given time to get away and practice self-care and think about the future. I've been going to counseling twice a week, and I'm starting to talk to a life coach. I mentioned this before but I've been on anti-depressants for years now. In addition, I try to do things that make me smile; I spend time with my nephews, I read and write, I surf and I've learned to make sleep a priority as well.
E: What do you think is one of the greatest issues young people face today that you come across in your work? Have you found any positive response or solution to it?
JT: I would say the biggest issue is the stigma that tells young people they can't talk about mental health. The stigma exists for people of all ages really. As a result, so many people feel ashamed and so many people keep their mental health a secret. In terms of a positive response or solution, the good news is that the stigma isn't accurate. The truth is that we can and should talk about mental health. It's okay to be honest and it's okay to ask for help. And it's important to note that great help exists. I meet so many people who have experienced positive change as a result of connecting with professional help.
E: What is a common misunderstanding about mental health that you wish you could debunk?
JT: The stigma I just mentioned is certainly a common misunderstanding. The idea that if something is outside our comfort zone, then it's best to just avoid it. The reality is that mental health is simply part of being human, just like physical health. Everyone on this planet experiences pain, both physical and emotional. Everyone has to deal with loss. Life is hard for a lot of people a lot of the time. So let's begin to be honest about it. Let's journey together and point to solutions so that no one feels like they have to walk alone.
E: How do you feel popular media portrays mental health and what do you wish you could change?
JT: In general, I feel like you see a lot of stories that are shining a light on mental health, stories that make people aware of the need as well as stories that point to hope and overcoming. I think there's a lot of great stuff happening in terms of journalism. As for pop culture, I think the show 13 Reasons Why (Netflix) demonstrates that it's not enough to simply tell a story that involves mental health or suicide. It also matters how a story is told, how these issues are depicted, and whether or not the story is triggering for people who struggle.
E: Do you have any advice for young people struggling with college or what to do about their future?
JT: Take your time. Be patient. Don't beat yourself up. TWLOHA, which changed my life, didn't start until I was 26, and it was a total accident. Beyond that, I would encourage young people to admit what they don't know. Ask questions. Find a mentor. Do an internship. And maybe best of all, go to counseling. Counseling is a great place to not only be honest about your questions, but to invite someone to help you find answers.
E: Is there a quote/mantra/lyric/phrase or anything that you find yourself using for comfort or peace when your are lost?
JT: I don't have any tattoos, but if I did, I think it would be this lyric, from the Switchfoot song "Where I Belong": "On the final day I die, I want to hold my head up high, I want to tell You that I tried, To live it like a song"
I've just always loved that last phrase, "to live it like a song."
If you want to hear more from Jamie he has two Ted talks, as well as numerous blog posts on the To Write Love Website. In times where I have needed some words of encouragement or understanding, I have turned to the TWLOHA blog. On difficult holidays, as meaningful celebrities pass away, when horrifying world events happen, the blog has been there to give me a feeling of comfort. The blog is the voice of someone who understands, going out to anyone who needs it, and those who may have never felt heard like that before. To Write Love constantly works to reduce the stigma of talking about mental health, and it is the first place many people feel they can be honest with themselves and those around them. When I was in high school, I ran a fundraiser for TWLOHA because I was so touched by their work. Writing this piece has been helpful to gain more wisdom about this especially tumultuous time of a college student’s life, I am eternally grateful for this chance to speak to Jamie, someone whom I look up to for wisdom.
More Jamie/TWLOHA resources