• Fashion designer Kenneth Cole recently founded the Mental Health Coalition to fight the stigma of mental health.
  • Cole compares the stigma of mental health to that which surrounded HIV/AIDs two decades ago.
  • The World Health Organization says one in four people are living with some type of mental health disorder. 

Video Transcript

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JOHN WHYTE: Hi, everyone. I'm John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. I've been interviewing a lot of physician, scientists, government experts over the last three months about the impact of COVID. But they're not the only ones that are making a difference in terms of how we battle this pandemic.

There is a lot of non health professionals that are also making a difference. And one of those persons is Kenneth Cole, fashion designer, activist, philanthropist. He's been keenly involved in public health issues for 30 years, always focusing on diversity and inclusion. First it was HIV, now it's mental health. Kenneth, thanks for joining me.

KENNETH COLE: Thank you, John.

JOHN WHYTE: You recently founded the Mental Health Coalition, which includes three dozen advocacy groups, business leaders, celebrities, all trying to fight the stigma of mental health. Why now, Kenneth?

KENNETH COLE: So-- so I had spent a lot of years living another-- through another pandemic, um. Early on in my business career, uh, HIV. I got involved, uh, my first campaign against stigma for HIV, um, in 1985, before-- as AIDS was just being given a name.

And there was this-- was a devastating virus that was killing people around the world, mostly in New York, um, men, young gay men. And, um, and, uh, and people didn't understand. They couldn't get their arm around it. They quickly learned how to contain it, but not have a cure.

So we did a campaign called We All Have AIDS, and we aligned all these, um, all these extraordinary, um, individuals. Uh, flew to South Africa with-- with Mark Sullivan. We photographed Nelson Mandela, Zackie Achmat, Desmond Tutu. Went to Los Angeles, photographed Elizabeth Taylor. And, uh, Elton John and Tom Hanks, who had just done his film, Philadelphia.

All these people who had had a voice in, um, in this pursuit, and aligned everybody around the notion of that stigma. That was always the rallying point.

So as we did-- and we did [INAUDIBLE] branding, marketing, and we tried to destigmatize HIV for a lot of years, I had stepped away from that about a year and a half ago. It was with the people from NAMI, because the company was-- here was doing a stigma-free initiative on mental health-- this mental health. We've come to believe there's a way bigger pandemic than the HIV, and that kind of drew me into this.

JOHN WHYTE: You've talked about that one in four people are impacted by mental health, but really four out of four people are impacted by mental health.

KENNETH COLE: Yeah, so the World Health Organization says one in four. We say if you consider people that you-- that you love and people in the family, in the community, in the workplace, everybody is living with mental health issues. And, um, everybody's contextualizing it on a daily basis, and it's overwhelming. And-- and 2/3 of those people doing it are living in the shadows, because they don't know how to confront it. They don't know how to deal with it.

The stigma for mental health issues, as pervasive as it is, is like it was with HIV 20 years ago. It's so bad. So, you know, why don't you-- or would you consider working on an initiative to destigmatize mental health? So I went down this road with the understanding, um, that maybe we work on an initiative, maybe we do-- NAMI says it will support you.

And then I came to realize, you know, that this is-- this would require a culture shift. It's so big an undertaking. And it would-- it would require people holding hands, kind of circling the wagons, um, agreeing that-- you know, that we all kind of rally, that we all kind of go-- hold hands, go down this road together. Because, you know, I spoke to five different psychiatrists and asked them the question-- the same question, what is it-- define for me, um, depression? And I got five different definitions.

And what is bipolar? I got different definitions. So there isn't the-- the traditional clinical vocabulary today is so diminishing and so stigmatizing in and of itself. And, um, so how do you come up with the--

JOHN WHYTE: You think about wanting to make it non-clinical in a way.

KENNETH COLE: Yeah, how do you empower people to talk about how they feel, those-- those 2/3 who are existing kind of by themselves in the shadows? How do you empower them with a platform by which to talk about their mental health, as they talk about their physical health? Because the truth is, when somebody says how are you, it's-- the two have to-- they work together, because unless-- you're not well unless you're-- unless both those parts are aligned. So we started reaching out to other mental health organizations, and eventually almost every important mental health organization, um, in the country, um, agreed to, um, support us and to align. And eventually we-- we formed what became known as a Co-- a Mental Health Coalition.

JOHN WHYTE: You've been talking about the power of storytelling. One component of this is an effort that you have with Kendall Jenner about, um, "How are you doing, really," with people sharing their stories on Instagram. Why is storytelling so powerful, Ken?

KENNETH COLE: Storytelling, why is it powerful? I'm not sure I can answer that question to why, but, I mean, it's been-- um, scientists have discovered that-- um, that there is a chemical reaction in the brain, and people, um, respond powerfully, meaningfully to telling their stories and hearing other people's stories. And, uh, it lets down their natural, um, resistance and guard and, um, creates pathways that-- to healing, in effect.

So-- so what we did was we set up-- it was actually an initiative that was kind of over-- that was run and still is by my daughter, Katie, who built the platform, and it asks the question most commonly asked in every country, in every language, um, everywhere in the world, um, and most rarely answered, how are you, really? And we encourage you to answer that, and share your emotions with your community, and-- um, and do it on one of the social platforms. I did it, and I hadn't done it before publicly, and it's very, um, therapeutic.

JOHN WHYTE: I first met you 15 years ago when I was working on a public service announcement for HIV from World AIDS Day. And I still remember 15 years later, you said to me, John, "It's more important what you stand for than what you stand in." An intentional pun, you know, as someone who makes shoes, but why get involved in this now? Why put forth your energy?

KENNETH COLE: You know, I didn't intend to be here. So, um, I-- it wasn't a road I was on, and I just found myself here. And I realized that this opportunity was so massive and-- and so compelling and-- um, and that we could make an impact somehow. We could-- we could impact people's lives in a meaningful way.

And then-- so we had started down this road and then COVID hit us. And-- and we were going to do something in October on Mental Health Awareness Week, and we realized that, um, we didn't have the luxury of waiting till October. But, you know, if we were fortunate enough and we're-- we were able to put tools out there that people can-- that can be helpful to people, even in the smallest way, then-- um, then it's a-- it's an-- it's just a wonderful-- an extraordinary opportunity that we would have had to help people.

JOHN WHYTE: What do you hope to accomplish from this coalition?

KENNETH COLE: You know what, the Coalition, I know that one plus one in this space equals more than two, and I know that if we all kind of are aligned on a path, that-- um, that we can change culture. That weekend when we did the "How are you, really?" Challenge with Kendall and she challenged, um, uh, Kim, her sister, Kardashian and Hailey Bieber and Justin, and we reached 200 million people in like 24 hours, 48 hours.

JOHN WHYTE: You did it.

KENNETH COLE: It's astounding the amount of impact you can make today and the amount of people you can reach.

JOHN WHYTE: You always say to me you're not a public health expert, you're a stigma expert, but you're involved in these issues, right, HIV, before it was popular to get involved with. You're getting involved in mental health, um, exactly at the time where we need more resources. Aren't stigma and public health really related?

KENNETH COLE: They are, but stigma isn't just exclusive to mental health. But I'm in the branding business, and that's what I do. That's what I do everyday. I mess with new-- the ordinary course. That's what enables me to do all this other stuff.

So-- and it's something that I understand intuitively. So-- and that's really what I did at amfAR, and that's what I did most of my work in HIV, and I became a UNAIDS Ambassador, um, also with the goal of helping them, um, realize their goal of making-- of ending AIDS by 2030, this public health crisis. It's what I do. I-- I'm good at putting myself in other people's shoes hoping that they'll also want to put themselves in mine, um, intended.

All I often want to do is help shine a light, is promote their efforts, shine a light on their important work, and-- um, and, you know, people are going to embrace that. There's no reason they shouldn't. And at the end of the day, by aligning people that create transparency, you find leverage and synergies and opportunities that each of them help each other in the ordinary course, and duplicative, um, initiatives ultimately become identified, and opportunities are also realized. So, um, and that happens, you know, from using a business approach and-- which isn't typically one that's brought to-- to health care, I don't know, but, um, and then branding and marketing, because that is what it's all about. That's how you connect with people today, is you motivate and inspire.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, we certainly need new approaches and new ideas to address this mental health epidemic that we're having along with the-- the COVID infectious disease epidemic. Kenneth Cole, I want to thank you for all that you've done for HIV. I want to thank you for what you're doing, uh, for mental health. Uh, and thank you for sharing your insights today into what we all can do, uh, to improve the situation.

KENNETH COLE: Thank you, John. And thank you for what you do. It's been-- I've-- it's been a privilege to stay in touch over the years, and, um, what WebMD does and how it facilitates access to important resources is also so vital, and, uh, especially at a time like this. So I thank you and look forward to being touch.