The mood was festive Tuesday night at the Highline Ballroom in New York City as the Child Mind Institute celebrated its second annual Change Maker Awards. Friends, board members and patients introduced the amazing people and organizations that are transforming the lives of children with mental health and learning disorders. The winners’ remarks celebrated the change that is happening while stressing that we still have work to do.
New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall was first up to accept the award for Champion, highlighting the dedicated staff of his stigma-busting organization, PROJECT 375. “My wife and I were bold enough to stand up and tell our story and put a vision in place,” he told the crowd. “But they work it every single day.”
Marshall was upbeat about changing public opinions on mental health disorders. “In the five years that I’ve been in this fight I’ve seen a huge shift,” he said. “Five years ago I said that I want to take this from a taboo to an everyday conversation. AND IT IS. And that’s one thing all of you guys should be proud of. The time is now.”
Carolyn Rafaelian accepted the Corporate Advocate award for the philanthropic example set by her company, ALEX AND ANI®, and its charity arm, Charity By Design. The CEO said she was grateful for the opportunity. “This is another magic night for me because I get to talk about the things that we do with my company because of my children,” she said. “As long as I am on this earth I will be a part of this organization,” she continued, “and do everything in my power to change the way people think about mental illness and to support healthy, beautiful children.”
Ann Sullivan, commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health, had warm words for the next honoree, the head of the National Council for Behavioral Health. “Linda Rosenberg is a wonderful advocate,” she said. “There is no greater advocate and no one I would be more honored to honor tonight.”
Rosenberg humbly shifted the focus in her acceptance speech. “We have made progress,” she allowed, including insurance parity and better public awareness of mental health and learning disorders. But then she quoted President Obama’s recent words concerning inequality: “We know the march is not yet over, we know the race is not yet won.”
Rosenberg then called for action. “The National Council accepts the Community Builder Award on behalf of the millions of children who have not benefitted from our progress,” she said. “Change is up to all of us, and we can make it happen.”
Child Mind Institute Board Member Julie Minskoff gave the crowd-sourced award for Outstanding Organization to the International Bipolar Foundation and its co-founder and board chair, Muffy Walker. “While these kids need some help learning to live in the world,” Minskoff noted, “the world also needs to know best how to open its arms to them.” And that’s what IBPF does.
Walker’s personal story made clear why IBPF is necessary, and why it is so important to people. “When my son was seven years old, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” she said. “There was no Child Mind Institute. There was very, very little support. And it was even much more stigmatized than it is today. My cofounders and I decided to make a change. And we are now helping people in over 180 countries. If we have made even a small dent in someone’s life, we have been successful.”
For the final award of the evening, Child Mind Institute patient Jackie introduced a crowd-sourced winner of the Local Hero award. “Mental illness can feel incredibly isolating and lonely, like you’re the only person in the world feeling that way,” Jackie told the audience. “Maria Mercedes Avila has dedicated her life to changing that. We need her now more than ever.”
Avila, who runs the Vermont Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities program at the University of Vermont, has an incredible number of focuses, from insuring culturally sensitive mental health outreach in underserved communities to helping refugee populations with mental health issues. “I told Jackie earlier that I am honored to be introduced by such an amazing young adult,” Avila began. “Especially since we live in a society where more than 40% of kids who need mental health services don’t receive help, and more than 70% of black kids who need help don’t get it. Where one in four children, and one in three children of color lives in poverty — poverty directly linked to readiness to learn, substance abuse and mental illness, and criminal activity.”
She rattled off more sobering numbers: Black students are suspended or expelled at three times the national average, and arrested twice as often. Native American youth commit suicide at a rate three times the national average. “Being a witness to the struggles of underrepresented populations in this country has left me with a deep sense of human fragility,” Avila told the rapt audience. “I speak up for kids because they are the most vulnerable citizens in our society.”
What can we do? It started in the room last night, Avila concluded. “Change takes 17 inches—the distance between our head and our heart. If we don’t make this emotional connection with these issues, like in nights like tonight, we will not be able to effect change.”