July 26, 2023

Hope Starts With Us: Episode 26

In this special episode of "Hope Starts With Us" recorded at NAMICon on May 25, 2023, NAMI CEO Dan Gillison interviews Kenneth Cole, an icon in the world of fashion and apparel who is also an ardent and visionary advocate for mental health.

Hear them discuss what led to the creation of Cole's Mental Health Coalition, the power of branding and what it all has to do with "square pegs in round holes." You can find additional episodes of this NAMI podcast and others at nami.org/podcast.

We hope this podcast encourages you, inspires you, helps you and brings you further into the collective to know: you are not alone.  

Episodes will air every other Wednesday and will be available on most major directories and apps.


Episode Audio:



Episode Transcript:



Dan Gillison: Mr. Kenneth Cole is here. He's been doing some incredible work in giving back and making a difference. As we get started, I think the first thing is that it's really to say, "Thank you, Kenneth." All of you all have received this canvas bag. I want to show this to you because this is from Kenneth Cole.


Dan: What's important here is also what it says here. Being different is what we have in common. As you showed, the square peg in the round hole.


Dan: There you go. That's an impromptu question. I have a prescribed set of questions, but I want to start there. May I? Would you give us a sense of that, being different?

Kenneth Cole: In my business…I'm in the branding business, I guess. We focus so often on…The starting point often is what are our differences and, ultimately, how do we converge? How do we bring it all together? How does it all work together? How does it look good in the same closet?

I think that is a reality. Our differences often divide us, but there's no reason they shouldn't unite us because it's…Physiologically, we're 98 point something percent the same. There's that little bit that often is what creates all this divide in our lives, unnecessarily.

Dan: Thank you. Kenneth, as we start, we just went through COVID. You created the Mental Health Coalition. Why did you create the Mental Health Coalition?

Kenneth: I spent a lot of years working in HIV. A crazy amount of years. I sat back. I had taken a deep breath with Bend. My daughter actually was working with us. She had started an initiative in our company with this organization called NAMI on anti‑stigma in the workplace, I think it was called.

It was remarkable. Everybody embraced it. Everybody felt good about it. I was looking at it statistically, from an analytical lens. 1 in 200 people were still living with HIV, a pandemic that was, up until that point, far worse than anything we had ever experienced in our lives and. Then WHO says one in four, one and five are living with mental health conditions.

I [inaudible 3:12] It's four in four, five in five. It's everybody. If it isn't you, it's somebody you love, somebody in the family, in the community, the workplace. Everybody wanted to talk about it or understood it or embraced it or was moved by it, which I had never experienced.

To talk to people about HIV was an effort sometimes, to bring people to the table. It wasn't here. This is something that people emotionally felt so moved by.

Apparently, two‑thirds of those people live in the proverbial shadows because of stigma. Stigma, I believe, by the way, killed more people…More people died of AIDS from the stigma than from the virus itself, because of their inability and their reluctance to make public their circumstances, get treatment, and access resources.

Then it becomes so much clearer, partially because of my conversations with NAMI early on, that as bad as it was then, it's even worse now and so much more pervasive. Then COVID comes along. As bad as it was then…

There was a study after SARS. Apparently, a third of the people, after extended quarantine, self‑isolation from SARS, experienced lasting symptoms of depression, another third of PTSD. The quarantine and the isolation was nowhere near as pervasive, as extensive for SARS as it was for COVID. One can only imagine how profound the implications were.

I do believe that it all goes back to that stigma ultimately is a perception. We're in the perception business. I said, "You know what? I don't have the qualifications to talk about mental health that you have, or probably anybody in this room has. I'm probably the least qualified person in this whole room…"


Kenneth: "…to be talking about mental health, but I come at it from a different place and from a different lens." Maybe equally emotional, maybe not, I don't know. I experienced it around me and I see people looking and struggling with it.

Basically, it all comes down to how we talk about it and how we think about it, and there is no acceptable vocabulary. I spoke to five psychiatrists and asked them for the definition of depression. I got five different answers, and none of them were empowering.

There is no tools for people to discuss their struggles. I thought this could be an ambitious, probably naively ambitious task to take on, and inspired by my daughters, by the way, I should tell you, and NAMI.

Dan: Thank you.

Kenneth: It's your fault.

Dan: [laughs] Thank you.


Dan: You're lending your name, you're lending your brand, and you're lending yourself and your team to NAMI. We'll speed through this, but I don't want to go too far without saying thank you because this is an investment you're making to come out here to be with us.

As we looked at the video, there's no one that won't take your call. There's no one that won't take your call. We just saw it, from Oprah to everyone else that was there, Kevin Love, all of the different names. Build on why NAMI?

Kenneth: NAMI is a great authority on the subject, but it's why mental health and it affects everybody and it moves everybody and it impacts everybody in different ways. I always say about how you talk it, how you think about it.

If you reconfigure how we think about it, how we look at it, there is no resources that are made available to you guys heartily considering the struggle that you're representing, and it's because of the narrative and the vocabulary.

If you sit back and you take and you look at the emotional, compassionate case for mental health and then you look at the business case for it, the compassionate case loses every time. It'll lose 9 out of 10 times. A, there is an empathy quotient, and we're all exhausted. We're busy feeling bad for all these aspects of our lives, all these people around us.

We hear about mental health connected to all these adverse circumstances and we see homeless in the streets and we see people dying from gun violence and there's all these other circumstances. It's very hard to emotionally bring yourself to action when you talk about compassion. When you make the business case for it, it's so compelling. It wins every time.

It's a difference between an investment and an expense. In business, nobody has extra money for an additional expense. Everybody has money for an investment. Every CEO's job is to invest with an appropriate return on that investment.

If you can articulate that return, and I believe, by the way, that in the workplace, if you say to an employer, you make that you are losing in retention and recruitment and productivity left, right, and forward because you're not making the appropriate investments, you have their attention.

Because their job is to realize a return on their limited assets and if you can show them how you can create that return, it becomes a little less emotional but so much more viable. It's not just in the workplace. It's also in the statehouse in Washington.

You make the investment. It's staggering. This statistics, maybe we can get into later if you want to. They're overwhelming, and they're incredibly compelling. It's how you look at it all the way down, and part of it is changing the narrative and changing how we talk about it, how we relate to people. I should probably let you… [laughs]

Dan: That's OK. You know what you're framing is it's not a cost, it's ROI. If we look at it as ROI and we get into the quantitative and the qualitative, we can really understand. What Kenneth has just spoken about, and I'm going to share a few statistics with you in terms of workplace mental health statistics.

Loss of productivity as a result of two of the most common mental health disorders, anxiety and depression, cost the global economy trillion dollars each year, and that's from the World Health Organization. That's fact.

Presenteeism and absenteeism. The cost of presenteeism to businesses was over 10 times higher than absenteeism. Absent workers cost employers around the US, 150 billion dollars a year, but those who came to work but were not fully productive, costs 1.5 billion dollars per year.

ROI on treatment. For every one dollar invested in scaled‑up treatment for depression and anxiety, there is a four‑dollar return in better health and productivity.

Kenneth: I make the cases much more than that, by the way, but you can keep going.


Dan: It's all right. The economic burden of major depressive disorder among US adults was estimated to be 236 billion dollars in 2018, an increase of more than 35 percent since 2010.

Kenneth: I believe it's much more than that as well, but keep…

Dan: I'm going to stop there because as I keep with these metrics, Kenneth is going to say it's higher, it's higher, it's higher, and he's right. What we wanted to do was to give you a few of the stats to move you from the empathetic to the actual ROI and the business imperative on this.

As a designer, you're in the business of perception. That's what you do. Kenneth Cole, you're an incredible and important voice in this conversation. May I ask you, how do we change the perceptions around mental health?

Kenneth: It's partially by changing the vocabulary and changing the narrative, and it ultimately changes culture. It's ambitious and it's hard to do, but you start the conversation and ultimately it takes hold. I do believe it.

By the way, I was looking up recently, and I found it fascinating. 6.8 million people died from COVID over a two or three‑year period of time, and 40 million people died from AIDS over about a 30‑year period of time. In the peak year, it was 2.7 million people died. There's a huge amount of people still living with it but relatively healthy lives today, to a degree.

The case that they say eight million people die every year from mental health‑related disorders, and that's a staggering number. The cost is 14 points X percent of the global population. The cost in every aspect of our lives is staggering. I don't think people quantify it, qualify it, process it properly and appropriately.

It's not just the quality of life. It's not the quantity. It's also the quantity of our years. It's the quality of our years. It changes in so many ways. One of the things that is so hard to process. I comment everything from a business point of view and that's one of my value adds.

Again, I'm not a public health, mental health psychiatrist, whatever the skills that so many people bring to this that are so valuable, but I'm good at aggregating people who have those skills, so that's been a helpful tool.

When you look at and you say ultimately what does success look like, what do we have to accomplish, and what are the steps to success, and how do we know if we're making progress along the way? I typically comment at almost everything from that lens. To begin with, it's not just there's no vocabulary to speak about mental health. There's a functional vocabulary.

We're talking and working with Marc Brackett at Yale who has his visual vocabulary which I'm a big believer in. It's non‑stigmatized and it's global, it's universal, and it's accessible. There's other tools in that regard, but there is no way to diagnose mental health emphatically, no reliable specific diagnostic mechanisms.

It's not a thermos. There are no thermometers. There's no CAT scans or X‑rays or blood tests, but you know definitively, how one's doing, and then you can assess how they're doing today versus yesterday, and are we making progress? Absent of resources applied there. I don't know how we ultimately accomplish what we need to.

We have to figure out how to come out from both directions, and we need biomarkers. We know mental health is a real disease, and it's a real struggle, and we all know it, so why there aren't appropriate resources, allocation of resources? Until there are, I don't know that we'll ever make the real progress that we're going to need to make.

Dan: Thank you for that. Looking at the other elements of this from the standpoint of where we are in 2023, how can we reach vulnerable communities, and especially young people during this time, Kenneth? What role should and could technology be playing to help people? What has the Mental Health Coalition been doing in the tech space?

Kenneth: This is a big conversation, and I know many of you guys may have seen the report by the surgeon general a couple of days ago. That aside for a minute, the tech world are a bunch of really impressive business people and tasked with building community.

If you look at the mission statement because I was looking at it recently of Meta, and it's basically to power people to build communities globally, something to that effect. You look at the mission statement of TikTok, and it's to bring creativity and joy into people's lives. No one talks about health and well‑being. None of them are qualified. They're less qualified than I am.


Kenneth: That's not what they're tasked at, that's not what their stakeholders are holding them to, that's not how they get bonused, that's not what their specific analytical mandate is on an ongoing basis. We're holding into standards that's arguably unfair, but we need to join forces.

Yes, what they're doing, there is and has been some unfortunate unintended consequences. They know it. They don't know how to fix it. They were desperate, and to fix it without compromising their business model.

It basically address the fact yes, it is a part of the problem, but how do you empower that process to be part of the solution? How does everybody come together? That's what we're trying to do with coalition to work with tech and work with these extraordinary organizations. Some of our partners are here today from Crisis Text Line and JET Foundation, and a few others.

How do we create synergy and scale amongst our organizations so everybody can have more leverage, accomplish more with what they have, and at the same time empower those platforms that so effectively connect the world seamlessly and have, unfortunately, caused a lot of…

The fallout has been what we're all watching and experiencing every day. During COVID, kids are alive today because they had access to those social platforms. That was their only connection to the world. Otherwise, they would have been isolated far beyond any reasonable way.

How do we empower that platform? How do we create standards and hold them to those standards that are responsible, understanding their business model, and at the same time the needs, the mental health, and the collective well‑being of everybody. It's critical we do it. Everybody wants it to happen. I do think there is a commonality there, as well.

We can all work together on this. We're trying to do that at the coalition. Hopefully, we're going to make some announcements soon about that.

Dan: That's wonderful. That mental health coalition, coming from business and lending your skills, talents, and all of your experiences into this space, how have you seen collaboration as you have built the coalition versus competition and conflict?

Kenneth: People love it. It's never been available. Typically, even in the business world, we build or businesses somewhat siloed because you don't know who's friend or foe. Everything is so transactional and so fragile. What's fashion to you may not to be me. What's fashion today may not be tomorrow.

It's all interpretive. It's not natural for everybody to want to come together and collaborate, but there's so much value…You can create so much scale here. There are so many of our partners who have never sat at the table together. There is…One plus one equals so much more than two if you get people to work together.

There's an adage that I use a lot which I like, which is…It's actually an African proverb which says, "Alone, I can go fast, but together, we can go far."



Dan: I use the same one. It's wonderful. As we continue this conversation, you don't have to do this. You've chosen to do this. What does the future look like to you as you continue to do this?

At any time, you could say, "You know what? I'm going to roll up shop and just do my brand work." We're all excited. We see the Kenneth Cole brand, and we want to go and buy it. What will keep you continuing on this path and this journey, Kenneth?

Kenneth: Look, what I'm trying to do is so crazily ambitious and naive. I'm not really doing any of the work. There's so many great partners. Dr. Dan sitting at our table, he's a big partner of ours on a lot of projects.

Everybody who's committed so much of their life to making a profound difference in people's lives, all we're trying to do is give them a platform and also enable them by connecting the dots and taking down the walls, building the proverbial bridges.

I think it's inspiring to see what these guys do, how committed they are, how dedicated they are. It's inspiring to see people like Dan Gillison, who's committed his life to public service and to making a meaningful impact, and communities like this who gave up their Memorial Day weekend…



Kenneth: …to be together to lock arms and discuss opportunities and circumstances, and future generations. My daughters are so committed to this. It's so impressive.

I do think we're going to see this. We're going to see it change, happen, but it has to be orderly, thoughtful. It has to be quantifiable, articulated markers along the road so we know that we're making the right progress or heading in the right direction.

There is such a great receptiveness in our group. Everybody enthusiastically, anxiously gets together. We're working with tech. They're loving the collaboration, the understanding that they're not the enemy. They want what we want. They just don't want to give up their business. They can't afford to give up their business to do it because then it all breaks down.

I think we're making an impact. I think we can make an even bigger one. I'm so appreciative of, Dan, what you do and what NAMI does and for having this platform to impose my thoughts upon these people on Memorial Day weekend when they could be somewhere else.

Dan: [laughs] We appreciate what you're doing.


Dan: You've invited us to a few of your events, and we've noticed that you have just an incredible cross‑section of society at your events, quite a few young people. As we look to engage young people, do you have any thoughts for us on how we do that?

Kenneth: They say you meet people where they are, so what language are they speaking, how are they speaking it, to whom are they speaking it? I was moved by that presentation earlier in the program by the Native Americans. We're not moving it. It's moving us or we're part of it and we're one.

At the end of the day, either we all win or no one wins. It's not a zero‑sum game. How do we listen and how do we give them voice and give them a platform? They're wiser and more insightful than you can imagine, than we can imagine.

We know that, but it's harder sometimes to institutionalize those things. We have to change culturally, change our receptiveness or willingness, and to engage with, and to be part of the solution, so it requires thinking differently.

Dan: Yeah, it does.

Kenneth: It's not like it was before.

Dan: How have you seen the conversation evolve, Kenneth? Through COVID and through the eight million lives lost, we know that, for our helpline, we saw an increase of over 300 percent in help‑seeking calls coming into us. We know there was fear, uncertainty, and doubt that actually was all about that period of time.

Now we see a tsunami of trauma coming with a number of our young people. We're also seeing a new conversation about mental health and wanting to understand it.

What can we do in this coalition and in collaborating to actually accelerate this and amplify what's needed? Because as you heard the Lieutenant Governor say, "If there was a system, we would fund it if you would." What's your vision, and what's your hope?

Kenneth: We have to articulate very clear markers and what we need to accomplish. The medical community has to focus on biomarkers. We need very clear indicators of how people are doing that are not stigmatized.

When you have a physical illness, you know it, you talk about it, you address it, and mental illness isn't any different. We don't have the tools to talk about it. Then how do you describe how you're feeling? That shouldn't be that hard, but it is hard. I was talking last night, just the basic vocabulary, how are you doing better?

Better is not an absolute word. It's an expression of a moment in time, so that vocabulary doesn't make sense. How do we create a narrative? How do we have the tools? How do we learn to accept people for how they are?

The stigma is really debilitating, and I very much appreciate that you guys are doing what you're doing. Also, by the way, just for context for everybody. NAMI has said, "Well, you guys, would you mind working on an anti‑stigma project? We think if you could do what you do with HIV in the past, this is so much bigger and so much more pervasive, and so badly needed."

I said to the NAMI team, "This is so much bigger than NAMI. Even if we were to take this on, this has to be a big rebrand. Everybody's got to lock arms, and are you OK if we reach out to everybody else?" NAMI said, "Go for it."

We reached out to we thought the most important, influential, and diverse service providers of mental health‑related issues. Basically and unequivocally, they all said, "We're in."

Our only agenda is to empower them and to give them a resource and a platform to promote all the great work they're doing and access more resources than they're able to get because there are virtually no resources are being made available to you guys.

Considering, of course, benefit, considering the pain that exists that's so pervasive, you guys should be funded as should everybody else to such a greater degree than you are.

Dan: I'm sorry. Could you say that part again?


Dan: I can't miss the moment.


Kenneth: I said you should be funded to an even greater degree.


Kenneth: You need the narrative. You need to talk about it. You need to present it properly. We all do it. It's not just NAMI, it's…

It's an investment. It's not an expense. I don't want you to give me money. I want you to invest in your future and your children's future and the next generation and pave the road that we're all about to embark upon. It's critical we do it. You're doing it not for me, you're doing it for yourself, and you're doing it for your kids and for the next generation.

Dan: As we look for the investment piece and we talk about ROI, how important is it for us as a not‑for‑profit to be able to report out numbers to potential investors?

Kenneth: Look, this is all business. Whether you want to accept that or not, it's business. You have income and you have expenses. How do they connect to each other? How does the income generate incremental expenses? You need to figure out how to show it. Typically, you can show it.

You're going to have all the money you can handle, and to a degree, you can show tangible, reliable, predictable impact. I was going to say, we did a study/campaign with Meta about six months ago. It was a study, but we structured it as a campaign to talk to people about awareness of mental illness, mental health‑related issues.

They gave us $300,000, they donated. We worked on a creative execution that reached 90 million people, which, in and of itself, unprecedented, for every dollar we reached 68 people. Of them, 550,000 people declared, for the first time, their openness to explore their own mental health struggles, their willingness to be open to other people's, and their openness to critical resources.

According to Meta, never been done before. They felt that was a huge breakthrough. We did it again with a BIPOC group a few months later. It's similar results. Now you have predictable, quantifiable, reliable, transparent outcomes.

You can change culture. You can change people's predisposition and you can change their openness to circumstances. It takes working together, it takes collaboration, but it also takes clear, communicable goals/objectives.

By the way, tech world, Meta says, we want to connect communities, make communities accessible to everybody, everywhere. I also say how they've turned everybody into their own brand. Everybody today wakes up and curates their brand on their Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds.

They don't just curate the content, they curate the audience, who has access to their brand. Every one of your competitors, whether you know it or not. What they've done is extraordinary.

Where was I going with that point? It's clear, quan…

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