Changing the Conversation about Mental Illness

by Bethany Snyder

Mental well-being is a foundational component of living a healthy, balanced life. While one in four people will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, many find it difficult to engage in necessary and life-saving conversations on the subject. Pamela Harrington ’89 works to combat the stigma and discrimination.

In 2010, award-winning actress Glenn Close was looking for someone to lead her new nonprofit, Bring Change to Mind (BC2M), an organization dedicated to encouraging dialogue about mental health. She turned to Pamela Harrington ’89.

“I was in the right place at the right time with the right skills,” Harrington says. Those skills included extensive experience in the nonprofit startup space. She helped launch The Jed Foundation, which is dedicated to protecting emotional health and preventing suicides of teens and young adults. “My niche specialty is taking an organization from a concept and bringing it to life, building a board and finding funding streams,” she explains.

Close was inspired to start Bring Change to Mind (BC2M) by her sister, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and her nephew, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Harrington’s life has been touched by mental illness, too — she has lost high school and college friends to suicide. At the time, she says, “I had no comprehension of why someone would do that. No one was talking about mental health in the ‘80s and ‘90s. No one was raising awareness of how to help yourself or others when they were struggling.”

As one of the first employees of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Harrington was fundamental in shaping the national conversation about breast cancer — which in turn led to increased awareness, education, funding and research. She is now doing the same with mental health through BC2M. “You can’t have overall health without a sound mind,” she says. “Mental health is a baseline we all have, and our work is reaching those at the further end of the spectrum. We’re guiding people to either get back to health or to learn to thrive where they are.”

Giving young people the skills and vocabulary they need to talk about mental illness is one of the key initiatives at BC2M. “Stigma is a learned behavior,” Harrington says. “We mimic the attitudes and language of our elders and pass our beliefs on to the next generation.” The Bring Change to Mind High School program is designed to stop the cycle of silence and shame by encouraging conversations and providing more than 10,000 students across the country with the tools they need to manage their mental health.

While Harrington finds her work rewarding, it’s often difficult. “For every beautiful story of health and resilience, there are stories about families losing loved ones and kids who’ve lost friends,” Harrington says. “It’s incredibly fulfilling and heartbreaking and inspiring, and there’s rarely a day when I don’t have a tearful moment.”

She finds continued strength and hope in the children in the Bring Change to Mind High School program. “The kids are really inspiring,” Harrington says. “They’re showing more empathy and compassion. They’re changing the language they use to talk about mental health. They’re standing up against bullying. They’re changing lives.”


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.