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An Expert’s Advice on Tackling the Mental Health Crisis    

An Expert’s Advice on Tackling the Mental Health Crisis

Art by FISK

By Hallie Sheinbaum

Inspiration hits us in random and unexpected ways. For Phillip Schermer,  it was a conversation he had with friends in a New York City coffee shop about a Logic song that led him to found Project Healthy Minds, a millennial-driven non-profit focused on tackling the mental health crisis in America, in 2019.

The song, released in April of 2017, was titled after the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and quickly made an impact, with the hotline experiencing a significant spike in its call volume after its release. Phil realized that the rap song had been a powerful marketing tool for the National Suicide Hotline simply by shining a light on how to access mental health support in America, and began to wonder how else pop culture could help. 

Since launching PHM, Schermer has made it his mission to close the often lengthy treatment gap between when a person starts experiencing mental health symptoms to when they receive help. He has also utilized his corporate and financial experience as Vice President and  Chief of Staff to the Global CMO at the investment management company BlackRock to build technology that makes mental health treatment more accessible.  

We spoke to Phil about how entering the mental health world has impacted his own mental health, what keeps him inspired, and why Project Healthy Minds’ approach to tackling mental health is so unique. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

What inspired you to launch Project Healthy Minds?

I was getting breakfast with two of my friends, Chris Zarou and Harry Remler, two well-known music managers who manage Logic and many other artists three years ago in a coffee shop in New York. They told me a story that became the inspiration behind Project Healthy Minds. In April of 2017, Logic released a song titled with the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. The song [dealt with] Logic's own experiences with anxiety and depression and his struggle figuring out where he belonged in the world. It went seven times platinum, was nominated for two Grammys, and won Song and Music Video of the Year. What I didn't know was that the day that it was released, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline saw the second-highest call volume in its history. Two months later, Logic performed this song at the MTV Video Music Awards and the hotline saw a 50% spike in call volume. Two months after that, he performs this song as the closing set at the Grammy's, and there was a 300% spike in call volume to the hotline. At the one-year mark of the song’s release, the hotline published a report showing that their call volume was up 30% year over year since the song came out. Because of my marketing background, [what I took from this story was]  that the song had acted like a marketing tool for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. 

I then went and did my homework and found that 615 million people worldwide are diagnosed with a mental health condition, and 65 million are Americans. That is four times the number of people in America diagnosed with cancer, but 6 in 10 people never get any type of treatment due to the stigmatization of mental health topics and people not knowing where to get help or not having access to care. This song gave us a case study for how to close that treatment gap. 

Many organizations are tackling mental health in their own ways. What makes Project Healthy Minds different?

Project Healthy Minds is basically a technology company within a content studio that’s sitting in a non-profit taking on the mental health crisis. It is a totally different structure [than what’s out there]. We are trying to build serious technology that can compete with anything in Silicon Valley to make it easier for people to find mental health services. We are not creating PSA advertisements – we are generating original content series in short form, long-form, video, audio, written, etc., because, at the end of the day, people like to follow serialized content much more than they like to see an ad. 

How has Project Healthy Minds shifted since its launch in October of 2019? 

What has obviously changed is the urgency of the work [because of the pandemic]. There was a mental health crisis before the pandemic, and now it is much worse, like you poured gasoline all over it. 

What inspires you and keeps you going when things get tough?

I always say you have to do work that is soul food for you and doing this work gives me a lot of soul food. I get a lot of energy from doing it and especially from doing it with other people. When we went public on October 1st, 2019, there was a big feature about it in The Hollywood Reporter and eight days later, Logic and I went on the Today show together for an interview. Each time that we have announced something or [done press], thousands of people reach out, from 13-year-old girls who deal with their own anxiety to 50-year-old women who have worked on Wall Street their whole career, were at the World Trade Center on 9/11, developed PTSD, and suddenly had to confront their own mental health. The through-line on all of this is the same. At the end of the day, when people are out there, especially public role models like Logic, Sally Yates, or Carson Daly, and they share their truth, it creates the permission structure for others to share theirs as well. [It’s rewarding] to see the impact of role models talking about their mental health and then other people saying, "I want to get into the fight." 

What is something you have learned about mental health recently that surprised you? 

I am always learning new things. What’s surprised me is the number of "high-performing people" who deal with panic attacks. It is definitely way higher than the “official” statistic because every day, somebody new shares a story with me about their experience dealing with panic attacks. 

Thirty years from now, I think mental health will be treated just like physical fitness. For physical fitness, you can workout, you can eat healthily, you can sleep more, etc. For mental health, there is a whole suite of things that you can do as well. You can spend time with people, you can see a therapist, you can practice meditation, mindfulness, and so on. The fact that only 1 in 4 Americans practice these things will eventually evolve to a point where almost everyone is treating it the same way they do their physical fitness. 

Have your experiences from your Project Healthy Minds work changed the way you do things at BlackRock? 

Working on Project Healthy Minds has made me a lot more mindful of my own mental health. On the BlackRock side, I have always been willing to let my work speak for itself. I don't try to constantly adhere to what other people want in a tactical way. I try to figure out what the big picture is. For instance, many people get anxious if their boss calls them on a Thursday night at 7 pm and they don't respond. I do not get any anxiety over that because I know what my worth is, and I know what I am contributing. If you are calling me during dinner, I am going to call you tomorrow, and if your view of me changes because of that, then we probably shouldn't be working together. 

What are your plans and goals for this year at Project Healthy Minds? 

In a couple of weeks, we are releasing something that is like the MVP of a resource guide, one that’s more sophisticated than what we’ve seen before. Later this year, we will [debut] the full marketplace [of providers and mental health services]. When building technology, you don't build it all at once because with each release, you are trying to test a different set of hypotheses, collect data, and let it inform your next iteration. We put together a very basic sortable list of resources in October that was just designed to help people when they learned about Project Healthy Minds, and we achieved 500 unique users in the first weekend. We weren't doing paid media or performance marketing, so we know people need help finding mental health services. 

We’re determined to make that easier for people, given that it takes 11 years in the U.S. on average between when you start exhibiting a mental health symptom and when you actually get help. One of the reasons why it takes so long is that it’s a pain in the ass to figure out where to find help. You say, "okay, I'll do this tomorrow," and then tomorrow becomes next week, next week becomes next month, and next month becomes next year. Suddenly, without being intentional about it, you have gone 11 years without getting help. 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.