I still remember the first day I met Kathryn Goetze, founder of the International Foundation for Research and Education on Depression (iFred). It was in Greece on the 2nd of September, 2009, during the first ever global mental health summit; the early days of my entry into the then-newly emerging field of global mental health. I guess you could say that until then, when it came to issues of mental health, my understanding was traditional and shaped by negative public perceptions.
However, it was upon hearing Kathryn speak at the summit about the need to rebrand depression and her endeavor to give depression a positive brand with the help of the image of sunflowers, that I began to understand how we can work to re-construct social understandings of mental illness and depression. I began too slowly realize that societal perceptions of mental health are constructed with negative images and that with effective campaigning, could well be re-constructed with the use of positive imagery like that of the sunflower.
Since 2009, I have remained in constant communication with Kathryn, keenly observing her work. It was in 2011 that I finally got a chance to actually work with her on her global initiative — the Field for Hope campaign, where fields of sunflowers are planted to shed light on depression and simultaneously work to give the mental health related problems a more positive image. It was, however, only recently that I thought about exactly what the motivations for Kathryn’s involvement in the sector were. I knew that she was doing wonderful and innovative work to tackle stigma against depression but didn’t know why she was doing it. I caught up with her and what I learned was telling.
Kathryn had lost her father to suicide at the tender age of 19. “It was very devastating to me. He was a brilliant businessman, very close to me, and I knew there was something ‘wrong’ with him from an early age, but had no idea what it was,” she recalled. It was only after several years of study in her 20’s that she realized it was untreated depression.
By the time she was in her 30’s Kathryn began to apprehend that she too was struggling with depression, “a chemical imbalance of the brain that manifests itself in different ways through different people,” in her words. She had developed addictions – to food, alcohol and could not understand why for a long time.
That’s why when Kathryn launched her company she wanted to donate her time and resources to help educate people about depression. However, in order to do so, she would have to start a new movement herself.
The sad reality of the global context of depression is that even the non-profits and organizations working on depression are by and large straggled themselves by the negative stigmas and imageries surrounding depression. Kathryn found that “the nonprofits doing work in this area were often, ironically, depressing.” According to her, these non-profits focused more “on symptoms rather than the impact of treatment,” and fail to recognize the fact that depression is the “most hopeful disease there is — depression is treatable.” That fact is one that many societies across the world, even the most developed, are yet to come to terms with.
The majority of images of depression are depressing people–sad men and women, head bowing down, arms wrapped around the knees and almost crying, in dreadful black and white gloom. As an expert in marketing and branding, Kathryn set out to challenge and, thus, change the stigma surrounding depression. by creating an organization to help rebrand the disease through “educating other NGOs about branding and stigma, engaging celebrities and role models to talk about the disease, and teach the public about the biology of the brain.”
For Kathryn, it is this biology of the brain that is central to being mentally fit. “We must learn about creating and maintaining a healthy brain. Everything they think, eat, feel, and do affects the health of their brain.” According to her, the world is going to be based more and more on human intelligence, so creativity, brain health, and ability to solve problems is increasing ever more in importance. That is why Kathryn has begun this new movement to “Learn about and feed the brain in positive ways.”
This is not the first time such a rebranding of a disease is taking place. A major rebranding success was seen in fighting the stigma surrounding breast cancer some decades ago. Iconic symbols like the pink ribbon and the ownership of the cause by celebrities helped to quickly bring the disease to the mainstream and strip it of its negative stigma. Kathryn hopes to help enable the same for depression.
When asked what she would like to see accomplished in her life, she replied that she’d like to see an “event similar to ‘Stand Up to Cancer’, engaging celebrities from all walks of life to raise money and awareness for depression by speaking out on how to find hope when all else is going wrong.” Further, Kathryn wants to be able to “live in a world where there are no suicides and people feel fine about getting treatment for their depression.” Her advocacy is undoubtedly on the right track to make this a reality.
In addition, Kathryn is working with companies to implement depression awareness and prevention programs in the workplace. She is also working on her Schools for Hope, “a curriculum we are developing to teach kids about how they can create Hope,” she said. Towards this end, she is also seeking support from consumer products companies.
Having been a part of the Field for Hope campaign, I can see its positive effects in encouraging communities to gather and talk about healthy brains and as a way to “honour those with depression,” as Kathryn told me. Overtime, the image of the sunflower will drown out the negative images of depression we see all-too-prevalent today. What Kathryn hopes for the future is to “have people think of a sunflower when they hear the word depression.”
Her work has been exemplary and encouraging in every way for the millions who are suffering. She vows to continue encouraging others to find the beauty in their darkness, and use the powerful force to create something full of light and inspiration for others.
I am proud to continue to be a part of her noble endeavor through my weekly blog beginning as of January 2014. I urge all to join hands to combat the greatest tragedy of the 21st century–depression.
(With support from Bidushi Dhungel)
Jagannath Lamichhane is a mental health and human rights activist from Nepal. Currently, he is doing an MSC in global mental health, a program jointly run by Kings College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK.