This interview has been lightly edited for clarity, and all photos featured herein are courtesy of Project Healthy Minds.
Ajani Charles: How are you?
I’m grateful for the fact that things are opening up, but there’s still an uneasiness in the air, and it doesn’t seem like we’re completely out of this pandemic yet.
Phillip Schermer: I’m doing great, thank you.
It’s interesting, at this point, like 70% of New Yorkers are double vaccinated.
So, we’re doing pretty well, but huge swaths of people in the middle of the country and the south are not, and the problem is that those folks don’t just stay in those regions.
So, in the last five days in New York, a lot more fear is coming up. Many companies have been planning to go back into the offices in September, and many folks are now wondering if that is actually going to be the case because of Delta.
Ajani Charles: There’s a lot that’s up in the air now, and also talking to some of my clients, they’re not sure if they will be going back into their office this fall.
I also have some anxiety about another lockdown in the fall, potentially.
I truly hope that isn’t the case.
With that said, how did you navigate the pandemic psychologically? How did it affect you initially, how did you get to this point mentally, and how do you interpret America’s evolution over the course of the pandemic?
Phillip Schermer: Those are great questions.
I’m going to start addressing them in pieces because they each are rich threads on their own.
Obviously, the pandemic started, there’s a lot of fear, and that fear drove anxiety.
Ajani Charles: Right.
Phillip Schermer: But then, a couple of weeks into the pandemic, something else was taking over, and it was some combination of isolation and fear and anxiety, and being stuck inside and how depressing it all was.
And when we say fear, there are many types of fear.
There was fear of getting infected yourself. There was a fear of losing your job. There was fear of someone you love getting infected. All different types of fear that was driving our collective anxiety, and it was interesting.
I live in New York, in Manhattan, and I don’t have a big apartment. And so when you’re confined to 600 square feet, that’s really intense, that can be very intense if you’re stuck in that size apartment and can’t really go outside.
And also, remember that during the beginning of the pandemic, New York was ground zero, I was here for it, so it was intense.
It wasn’t just the pandemic at large; it was the hottest spot in America where I lived.
Also, doing this mental health work gave me a different lens and even more sensitivity to the various layers of complexity to the issue when it was happening.
I remember, four to six weeks in, at one point, I called one of our clinical advisors to explain to me what was actually happening because it feels like there are so many things happening. I don’t even have the words to describe them.
Some of the things that we discussed included the initial novelty of being in your home and not going to work yet feeling worn out and exhausted.
One of the exciting things that were explained to me was that habits are the original human right; we reduce the number of decisions that we make in the course of the day to a reasonable number that we can actually manage.
When you don’t have habits, you’re making thousands of decisions every day, and that level of decision making creates decision fatigue, and it creates a cognitive load that is exhausting.
So there are all kinds of small habits that you engage in daily. You wake up at a particular time, shower when you wake up, and then put on a certain type of clothes. You have all these habits, big and small, where you don’t have to think about it; you do them.
Because of the pandemic and its uniqueness, after over 80 years without a pandemic in this country, many of our habits were thrown out the door. And suddenly, we had to figure out everything; everything was crashing, which created a huge amount of cognitive load.
That was exhausting and debilitating.
To me, that was a very insightful explanation.
All I’ve done is moved from my bed to my couch. How could it be that I’m exhausted? Because if you remember, during the pandemic, you weren’t leaving home, and you were exhausted at night. That makes no sense.
So, going back to your question, what were some of the things I’ve learned, and how did I manage through the pandemic?
I had to become a lot more thoughtful and intentional about creating new habits, including transition habits in the course of the day.
How do you distinguish between when you’re working, when you’re eating, when you’re done with work, and when your night begins?
At the pandemic’s beginning, I was eating and working in the same space because we didn’t have much space here, so I sat at the table and did both.
And you know what? One of the things that I learned was; actually it’s better if you can create a certain space where you work. And then, even if it’s just eating lunch or dinner, eat in a different seat. Have something that transitions between the parts of the day.
So, all of that is to basically say I feel like I learned a lot about how to cope and how to create habits and how to become a lot more mindful of all of the things that go into impacting our mental health day to day, tiny things that we never think about.
For example, before the pandemic, I never really thought about the importance of transitionary routines. That wasn’t really on my mind, so that’s been a big thing for me, and it’s been nice.
Since I’ve been vaccinated, it has been great to be with friends again because the isolation is so harmful. The loneliness of not being with your loved ones or your friends with your community has significant health effects.
So, being outside with friends, going to brunch, having dinner outside has been a really nice step forward.
Ajani Charles: I feel you.
I’m going to a driving range for the first time in a few hours with some of my friends in Toronto, which has very similar weather to New York.
The winter was brutal during the lockdown, so you have the social isolation, and it’s dark, and it’s cold, and you have no idea what the future holds or how long the lockdowns are going to persist.
I experienced intense periods of depression during the winter, even though I have so many mental health tools and professionals at my disposal.
It was almost as if those tools were not quite enough, and to make matters worse, one of my coping mechanisms is workaholism, and I definitely got into that a lot during the winter, which was not good.
So at what point in your life did you realize that mental health and the stigmatization of mental health were significant topics, and what are some of the events that led to the fruition of Project Healthy Minds?
Phillip Schermer: A primary series of experiences that I had in my life taught me about the importance of mental health, and then there was a second set of experiences that inspired me to start Project Healthy Minds.
They’re not the same. My awareness and appreciation of and sensitivity toward mental health pre-dated coming up with the idea of PHM.
During the beginning of college, I was thrilled to be there. I went to the University of Michigan, and I loved everything about being there for many different reasons.
But, I remember many of my friends saying that they wanted to see a university therapist early on. And the way that the University of Michigan was set up, an institution that I love, that’s great, had a waiting time of more than 30 days.
That was the thing. And the truth is, that is the standard in the United States on almost every college campus. USC is more than six weeks, Penn is more than six weeks, it doesn’t matter whether you go to public school, private school, well endowed, not well endowed, it doesn’t matter. The wait to see a university therapist when you’re a college kid in America is oftentimes over a month.
Ajani Charles: Oh, man.
Phillip Schermer: And what’s crazy about that is that everybody else learns, whoever the first movers are, they learn that it’s a 30 day wait, they then tell all of their friends about how long the wait is, and when they learn that It’s a 30 day wait, they all say “screw it, I’m not going to get therapy, I’m not waiting 30 days.”
And then a kid in my fraternity had passed away from suicide. So, that problem had been something that was acutely on my radar for a long time. And then a bunch of friends of mine at Michigan led some really innovative work called Wolverine Support Network; they created an organization about building a peer-to-peer model on a college campus for mental health supports.
Anyway, that stuff accumulates over time. And then, what was interesting was after I graduated, I got to New York in the first couple of years out of college. And then you go through this process of individuation, where your support networks for many people, not everyone, but for a lot of people gets smaller and smaller.
You increasingly start saying to your friends, “when was the last time you talked to Person X or Y? And their answer increasingly becomes, “I haven’t talked to John Stewart in two years; I feel so bad.” And, and while people don’t mean to separate from their friends intentionally, they get thrown into their work, they get so focused on their work, and they’re exhausted at the end of the workday, they then go home, they go to sleep, and then they go back to work. And so what happens is, you break off into smaller and smaller groups, you see fewer of your friends, they start dating people, they have significant others, they put a lot more of their free time into the one person, right?
But, if you take a step back and view the whole picture, social support systems are so critical to most people’s mental health.
And if you’re basically not investing in your community, and in your friendships and your relationships, and you’re just letting them rot, not intentionally, you’re just not putting your effort there, that eventually catches up with you.
And it was interesting because I felt like the first couple years after college, whether you worked in New York in finance or advertising or film or you’re in L.A. in entertainment, or Silicon Valley working in tech, or in DC working in politics, no matter where you were, what kind of job you were in, pretty much everyone I knew was working incredibly long hours. They weren’t finding much fulfillment in their work. And no one’s fighting to solve that problem.
And that’s why I think you get people wanting purpose in the workplace.
And if you ask most people, do you want to be the 50-year-old who runs your department or your company when you’re 50, do you want that person’s life? Nine times out of ten, they say, “no, I don’t want that person’s life.”
And so, you take all these things together, and I felt like all of the conversation was about mental health, even if people didn’t use the words “mental health,” that it was all it was.
They talked about a lack of happiness, a sense of being burnt out and stressed out, not having a community, and not having a sense of belonging.
The connective tissue across all these conversations was mental health.
I get all of my energy from being with other people. So for me, I hated this trend of individuation.
Like in college, I lived with 10 other guys. And what I loved about it was, at any given moment when I went to the living room, there were friends there. I didn’t even know a lot of them, but that’s how I made friends because they were somebody else’s friends, we were hanging out in the same place, and we got to know each other.
But that doesn’t really happen once you enter the workforce in the same sort of way, with the same volume and speed, so it just doesn’t happen that way.
And so, I hated that people were willing to spend less energy on their friendships and relationships within communities and more willing to become more isolated.
I hated how it impacted me, but I also hated it because it felt like if you actually listen to people, they weren’t happy with it either; they didn’t recognize that they were contributing to the problems they were dealing with. They didn’t see them as related.
Anyway, later on, I was at breakfast with friends who manage Logic and many other people. They told me the story about Logic’s 1-800 song and how it led to these massive skyrocketing rates of people calling the national suicide prevention hotline on the day the song was released, during the VMAs performance, at the end of the Grammys, even after a full year.
And when I heard that story, it blew me away.
And it occurred to me that something about that song and what it was speaking to and how it was causing all of these people to call a hotline for help that had to relate to these experiences that I’ve been having for years. I wasn’t sure what the relationship between the two things was. Still, I wanted to get to the bottom of it, and that’s how we started Project Healthy Minds.
Ajani Charles: That’s amazing.
I definitely foresee America becoming a healthier place because of Project Healthy Minds and other organizations like it.
Recently, you sat down with Haley Hasselhoff — David Hasselhoff’s daughter, and you spoke about this process of individuation that you and many others experience in their formative years.
And many forms of mental illness and neuroses are created in isolation, as you know, which can be very dangerous. And becoming too individuated, too self-focused has a lot of psychological downsides.
But, in certain parts of the world like Asia, for example, it’s almost the opposite, collectivism is what’s promoted to the masses, and that also has many psychological downsides, because then you lose yourself in the collective, you don’t know who you are, and you’re perpetually going with the crowd. And that part of the world has many mental health challenges, just like this part of the world.
Do you believe that it’s possible to find a healthy balance between the two: individualism and collectivism, and if so, from a mental health perspective, what does that look and feel like?
Phillip Schermer: The short answer is yes, I absolutely believe that we can find that balance, and I also think the answer is not the same for every person.
That’s something that each individual has to figure out for themselves.
How much do they need in their toolkit to make them feel whole and happy and fulfilled?
Because I get my energy from people, I’m at one end of the spectrum.
I mean, if I could have every meal with friends and do everyday stuff with my friends, that would be great. If I could meet new people every day, naturally, not in a forced way, but naturally, that is my ideal.
I love meeting people for whatever reason. I can’t explain it. I love people.
I think people are so interesting; I get all my energy from people. And when I’m not with people or with only the same people for extended periods of time, I don’t have as much energy, and I feel slower and more depressed. I don’t feel as great.
But, not everybody is that way, and many people need space for themselves.
Ajani Charles: Like me.
Phillip Schermer: Yeah. And so, I don’t think it’s about one versus the other. I think it’s about finding the right mix for you, and at the end of the day, what mix of stuff works for you? And that, to me, is the key thing that most people don’t know or need to learn.
It’s not like you’re one or the other; it’s not like you’re mentally ill or you’re not; it’s a lot more complicated, and it’s about figuring out the portfolio of stuff you need.
Ajani Charles: Right.
Well, you’re high on extraversion; I’m high on introversion.
So, I’m going to go to the driving range in a few hours, and then I’m going to go out with my friends, and I set that up specifically because I knew that if I didn’t set that up, I would continue working until 10 pm or later, and I’d become very self-focused. And that’s not good for me.
So, as someone more introverted, I have to schedule a time to socialize in my calendar and put forth the effort.
And in my case, after a certain amount of time spent socializing, I need to recover.
But, you’re right; it is completely subjective; it’s on a person-by-person basis. I totally agree that we need to figure out what that balance is for ourselves.
Phillip Schermer: And you’re a great example, you’re very mindful of this, and that to me, is the key: people being mindful of what it is that they need to feel their best.
Ajani Charles: I appreciated your recent conversation with Haley, and during the exchange, you brought up Naomi Osaka.
I’m a big fan because she’s an incredible athlete, an amazing social activist, and a mental health activist. And my family’s from Haiti, she’s half Haitian, and I love Japanese culture.
Anyway, she’s highly publicized for her mental health advocacy; Simone Biles took a similar stance recently at the Olympics in Tokyo this year. And both of them experienced some pushback and criticism.
So, why do some media platforms scrutinize public figures when they are outspoken about their mental health? What’s going on there, and why is there sometimes a lack of empathy from the media?
Phillip Schermer: It’s a good question.
I think one part of it is that the stigma exists. That’s part of the problem; that’s why we’re doing this work together.
The flip side of stigma is discrimination. There are many kinds of stigmas, but the way that stigma manifests is that people discriminate. They make different decisions than they normally would, based on something you have or that you’re associated with that is considered taboo.
Ajani Charles: Right.
Phillip Schermer: And so, for example, one might argue that 200 years ago in America, there was a powerful stigma that was immoral and unjust, directed at people of color, and that resulted in discrimination.
And people would discriminate based on skin color, which is crazy.
And so, when I think about it, I’m not trying to equate racism with mental health; what I am trying to talk about is that there are all kinds of issues around race, sexual orientation, gender, mental health, and there have been other health issues, like cancer, HIV, AIDS issues that have been stigmatized. The result is that people then discriminate; they react differently than they ought to or normally would.
We are in the early days of making progress on mental health stigma in America.
We’re at the very top of the first inning. And it’s a nine-inning game. And there are 162 games in a season.
And so there’s a long way to go.
And I don’t even know if it’s so much the media as it is just these personalities that exist.
I think we have to be honest that there is also an element of this based on gender, that I’m not sure that some folks who have criticized Naomi and Simone would have criticized them if they were men or white, frankly.
I think that is an undeniable truth, a reality, where some people in America are at right now, so I think it’s probably those two factors put together.
Ajani Charles: Thank you.
It’s kind of like you’re reading my mind because you just segwayed into my next question, which focuses on the Olympics.
I’m going back to Naomi and Simone. They’re highly publicized about their mental health advocacy. Still, male athletes haven’t been as vocal recently, at least in terms of media coverage, even though men are statistically more likely to be in prison, more likely to be the victims and perpetrators of violent crimes, more likely to engage in substance abuse, and more likely to commit suicide.
So, what are your thoughts on the intersection of mental health and masculinity, and how can men psychologically take better care of themselves?
Phillip Schermer: It’s a great question.
I think over many generations; we have developed, through popular culture, an understanding of stereotypes and what masculinity means historically, which hasn’t been that healthy.
Because part of some definitions of masculinity, historically, involves a total lack of vulnerability and authenticity, you just got to be strong and power through it, which creates no space for honesty around mental health.
And I think you’re right; I think that it’s harder for men to be honest about their own mental health needs and journeys.
And what I’m heartened by is, we are at the beginning days of having more men talk about mental health.
If you think about Michael Phelps, such an important leader in the mental health space, an Olympian.
Think about the first NFL panel on mental health that we did in May, with Carson Daly moderating. Such a leader, Carson’s an archetypical male figure. Then we had four NFL stars all talk.
And elsewhere, we have someone like Will Smith, who’s talking about mental health.
So, I think that we’re in the early days, but I think you’re 100% right; we have to evolve our understanding of what masculinity means; we’ve got the first second gentleman in the history of the United States in the White House. And I think that having someone like that is really important right now because it’s role modeling around expanding our understanding of masculinity.
You can be just as masculine as anyone else and have a wife who’s the Vice-President of The United States. Men don’t have to be the center of attention at all times to be men.
Ajani Charles: What does the future hold for Project Healthy Minds? What can you tell Thrive Global readers about the evolution of Project Healthy Minds moving forward?
Phillip Schermer: I’m really excited about the increasing recognition across the science of mental health.
COVID has been terrible in every respect, but the one thing that it has done culturally is it’s forced everyone; when you sit at home for months with your own thoughts, even for people who never acknowledged mental health before, you are forced to confront your own mental health in ways that you’ve never had to do in your life before.
And so it creates this opening in this moment, where there’s a lot greater recognition that mental health is an issue.
And so, for me, the question is, how do we take advantage of this moment? Because fundamentally, we need people. We need more people en mass, every day, coming out, sharing their story, normalizing this conversation that we need at scale.
So that’s what has me excited.
I’m also excited that we’re going to be rolling out a whole bunch of programs over the next couple of months, everything from new releases of our technology platform, which is going to make it easier for people to find mental health services, to all kinds of content and media.
We’re going to be dealing with influencers and role models around mental health.
How do we take advantage of this cultural moment that we’re in right now?
Right now, we have universal anxiety. Based on a national survey we conducted in the United States, 96% of people aged 18 to 34 years old reported experiencing some level of anxiety, with 48% of people reporting feeling anxious frequently or all the time.
And so you have this widespread anxiety. You also have greater recognition from an older generation that this issue matters. And I think that creates the conditions for us to do stuff in a significant way that moves the needle, which gets more people like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Will Smith, Logic, and Carson Daly out there talking about this issue.
And that brings the next wave of people into the fold. We’ve had the first wave of early advocates, early movers, the people who are the avant-garde. Later we will have the mainstream movement.
Ajani Charles: Amazing. Thank you so much for your time.
Phillip Schermer: Thank you. And as they open up the border, if you’re planning to be in New York at all, over the course of the next few months, we got to get together, we got to grab a bite, a drink, something.
Ajani Charles: For sure, let’s make it happen.