Jamie Tworkowski is the founder of To Write Love On Her Arms, a non-profit movement which works to raise awareness and aims to present hope and find help for young people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. We recently spoke to Jamie (who is also a guest on this week’s episode of the RELEVANT Podcast) about depression, why young people are dealing with it so heavily and what everyone can do to help.
Where are you right now?
I am on tour with The Almost this week, and we’re in Cambridge, Mass. tonight. I am speaking before their set each night and meeting lots of kids. Right now, I’m at a coffee shop, trying to look like a Harvard student. We were in Portland, Maine yesterday and we’ll be in Philly tomorrow night. Headed slowly south.
Can you tell me what plans TWLOHA has in future, particularly since the MySpace awards?
Man, there’s lot going on. We have operated for the last year under the umbrella of Fireproof Ministries, which is led by Craig Gross. As of September 1, we just stepped out on our own. Craig and Fireproof had so much to do with helping us get off the ground, but we just felt like it was time to step out and stand alone. We have a ton of momentum and we’ve obviously seen huge growth over the last year, so I think it’s the next step.
On the note of MySpace, I had a great meeting with them last week. They were incredibly supportive and encouraging about what we’re doing, and they seem excited to partner. So we’re talking to them about exclusive content, events and some other fun stuff. We’ve been in the rotation on their front page, which is the busiest single page on the Internet, so that’s obviously exciting. All in all, it’s a pretty amazing opportunity to bring light to a dark place. There’s something like 74 million folks on MySpace and more everyday, so it’s safe to say we’re excited to work with them.
We are super excited as we work toward “Live Help,” in which people will be able to interact with licensed counselors in a free, anonymous setting via our website. We’re working on getting that off the ground right now.
We’re working on visiting the other organizations we work with, trying to visit one each month, and doing something to bring our audience along (video, photos, etc). We’re connected to people and places where these needs are being met, and we want folks to know about the great work that’s being done. And obviously, that’s another form of presenting hope.
Beyond that, updating twloha.com, some speaking opportunities, working on a few of our own “Stop the Bleeding” events for this fall, looking at some other fall tour options, and we’re already thinking about Warped Tour next summer, how to raise the bar and bring hope and help to that tour in a major way. Oh, writing a book and designing new T-shirts as well.
There have recently even been some high-profile cases of depression (with Owen Wilson) and news stories about the prevalence of suicide in our culture. Why do you think the issue of suicide and depression is so prevalent?
I think we’re all broken people. I think everyone can relate to pain and to living with questions. We get stuck in moments. We are haunted by our pasts. My friend Byron is very smart and he says, “Life is hard for most people most of the time,” and I believe that. Suicide and depression are things that we don’t talk much about. These issues are confusing and painful, and people tend to ignore them. It’s estimated that 19 million Americans struggle with depression, and two out of three of those people never get help. Untreated depression is the leading cause of suicide. But the good news is there’s a tremendous amount of hope rising in the face of these issues. Depression is treatable. Community is essential.
TWLOHA isn’t technically a Christian organization. How do think the Church’s response to the issue has been, and why are you guys taking a different approach (reaching outside the Church)?
I think the Church, for the most part, is no better than the rest of society in terms of how we respond to these issues. I say “we” because I consider myself part of the Church … Often times, the Church oversimplifies and looks only at the spiritual. In most cases, there is more to these battles than, “I’ll be praying for you.” If your friend had a broken arm, you wouldn’t just pray. You would take them to the hospital to get the bone fixed. These are complex problems and often times, they require complex solutions. I believe God’s given us wisdom, education and medicine, for a reason, and those things are part of the equation. The Church is quick with its answers but slow to embrace people living with enormous questions. And a lot of times that’s the first step, simply meeting people where they are, showing we’re not afraid of their pain, showing we’re willing to walk with them.
We don’t call ourselves a Christian organization because I believe the word has been abused to the point it now means some terrible things to a lot of people, so we’re trying to use a new language, and more than anything, we’re trying to meet people where they are. We would probably not be welcome on Warped Tour or be sitting in meetings at MySpace, if we showed up under the banner of “Christian organization,” but by doing things the way we have, we’re seeing some amazing doors open. In short, we do more ministry by not using the word “ministry.”
Music seems like it plays a huge role in what you guys do. Do you think that particular community connects more deeply with the issue?
Yeah, a guy made an interesting comment to me the other night, at a festival in South Dakota. The guy was an artist, a painter, and he simply said, “These kids that are hurting, many of them have an artist’s heart; they see the world in a different way.” I don’t think I’d ever thought of it that way, but that really stayed with me.
I believe songs can sometimes go places that conversations can’t. I think we have moments or days where we just want to be alone, with some music that is honest, or comforting, or hopeful … and then obviously we live in a day when “emo” has become a word that is horribly overused and abused. Society and pop culture, more and more, seems to laugh in the face of young people who love music and also struggle with issues of pain. I think that is absolutely terrible, and it makes me mad. We just want people, all people, to know that they’re not alone, that these are things we need to talk about, and to know more than anything that there’s hope.
For someone dealing with depression, what are immediate steps they can take to seek help?
First off, don’t be alone. Talk to someone. Obviously, talking to a counselor or entering treatment is probably going to be the best thing for someone who’s really struggling with depression and/or addiction, but short of that, in the first moment, talk to someone. Find a friend, a parent, a pastor, or if it’s desperate and you’re thinking about suicide, pick up the phone and call 1-800-SUICIDE or 911.
We tend to bottle these things up and keep them to ourselves, and that doesn’t help. It makes it worse. We need community. We need people who know us, people we can be honest with. Also, it’s probably a pretty great idea to pray, to invite God to bring healing and redemption, to walk with us. I would be an idiot if I forgot that one.
It seems like depression and self-injury are kind of “secret issues” that people dealing with them don’t like to talk about. How can we bring it more into the open so people feel comfortable seeking help?
I think a lot of people doing the sort of work we’re doing, especially when it comes to awareness, they tend to focus on the negative. We’re trying to be honest about these things, but we’re also trying to focus on and celebrate the hope and help that exists in the face of this stuff.
And community is essential. I know I keep saying that, but it’s true. When we get in the habit of living honest lives and doing life with people, talking to people, it makes it so much easier to navigate these storms. And I think part of a life lived in community, and the idea of freedom in Christ, is that there’s nothing we can’t talk about, no dark place we can’t bring light to.