Mike Stroh is a true patient leader who is fighting to improve the lives of his members and the greater mental health community. He has built Starts With Me into a champion of youth and teen mental health awareness and continues to create opportunities for young people to have their voices heard and empowered. He’s pushed his own personal limits to fight for this cause. We sat down with him to hear more about Starts With Me and the personal story that drives him.
If you’d like to make sure Mike has the resources to continue this amazing work, find out how you can support Starts With Me.
PC: What work does Starts With Me do? What’s your mission?
MS: What we are doing with Starts With Me is trying to create spaces for conversations about mental health that change lives. We do that through public speaking appearances, monthly events, and different programming in high schools and universities. We also just started a youth mental health and innovation festival for high school students called the State of Mind festival. Our mission with all of this is to create opportunities to have honest dialogues about mental health with younger people and those who interact with them to find solutions to the growing problems faced by mental health care services and education. When the message is honest, sincere and straightforward, people respond to it.
How did Start’s With Me get started? What was the journey that led you to create this?
My own experience with mental illness and addiction went on for a long time. My brother lives with schizophrenia, and he had similar drug problems to my own; so I have a powerful personal connection to this cause. As I began my recovery journey and started to get well; I started getting invited to be a speaker in a program at CAMH high school educational sessions. The more I did that, the more I began to see a gap in the mental health education space, and the mental health personal storytelling space and an opportunity to impact young people dealing with their mental health. I was still in the midst of working on my recovery and getting healthy again, which is an ongoing process but I’ve come a long way. The most important thing I learned was that I’m responsible for my behavior and for all the shit I did in my life. If I didn’t realize that, there was no way I was going to be able to change. That is the main idea behind Starts With Me. And I was like, alright, I’m gonna start this business. I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be; I just knew that I needed to get to work.
So, where did it take you?
A lot of it came from an opportunity I saw during a youth mental health summit put on by the mental health commission of Canada. I saw the general issues with large institutional programming. A lack of innovation, creativity, and authenticity. It wasn’t something I believed young people would resonate with. I started asking myself, how could something like that look better? Why couldn’t we use a festival model with a mental health lens? I have a lot of event production and festival experience, so I thought, I can turn this message into a festival that celebrates mental health and celebrates the struggle. I started working towards creating this festival, and in doing that, it also helped develop a lot of the programming that I do with schools and in the community.
We were lucky enough to attend the first State of Mind festival this year, can you explain what it’s all about?
So, first I got a couple of high school teachers on board, and we created a curriculum for their classes. We wanted to make something that could be integrated into the student’s everyday lives. Throughout the year, the students create artwork, dances, videos, songs or any other type of artistic piece they decide; as an expression of mental health. We are trying to make the event a way for kids to connect to mental health awareness in a positive way, which is a way we don’t usually connect to it. Then during mental health awareness week in May, all of the content created by the students is presented and celebrated at the State of Mind festival. This year was the first time we ran the event, it was a full day event, and we had about 130 students participate. The student submissions were amazing and the festival has become the anchor for all the things that we do.
What are the biggest challenges you’re faced with running Starts With Me?
LIFE! I have two little kids, a wife, a house, and my health and well-being — that’s always the most important thing that keeps me going. Taking care of yourself is a big challenge, and in today’s world that isn’t always a valued use of your time. I don’t have as much time and energy to work on Starts With Me, and I’d love to hire somebody. I’m not a business or marketing guy, I’m interested in all aspects of the work, but it’s not my forte. Ideally, if I had people for all the traditional dimensions of business, of course, we would be able to grow and start hiring more people.
What about planning and running the festival?
I had lots of people help the day before, and many people that worked hard to help the day of the festival. Other than that, it must rest on the work you’re willing to put in yourself. Now that I’ve done it once and we’ve shown what it looks like, moving forward I’d love to have more help. That’s kind of the thing with start-ups, you do what you can. The biggest barrier is always money whether you are a charity or a for profit enterprise.
Say you could have more resources, what does Starts with Me look like?
I guess it’s hard to tell what it would look like. I want the festival to be a ten-day event. And basically, I want it to tour the world, like a Lollapalooza for mental health. I want it to be implemented by different communities all around the world so they can create it through their mental health lens. I would love to build a large platform for people to see what they’re capable of doing. I want to put all mental health stakeholders together at the festival so that the ideas and insights that come from the event can filter out into other areas of the system that need to change – schools, hospitals, government, community service providers. It’s a fragmented group of stakeholders that I want to bring together.
What pushes you to keep going?
I can’t picture myself doing anything else, and I love it. I sincerely love taking care of myself because I never did it before. Every time I get a message or email or have a conversation with someone willing to open up to me about mental health, it’s amazing. I often forget how hard that was to do.
What’s your proudest moment?
The festival. When I stood in front of all those kids at 10 am to greet them, I was emotional. It was so beautiful for me to experience that.
What’s something you wished everyone knew about mental illness?
It’s never as bad as you think it is. We get wrapped up in the thinking and the worrying, and it spins us out of control and causes pain. You have the skills and the opportunity to enjoy your life regardless of what those pains are. If you are committed to working through it, then you can work through it. I want people to believe in their capacity to improve their well-being regardless of what is going on in their lives. That’s the message I want younger people to understand.
How different can people’s lives be?
My daily life is so different from what it used to be. I used to spend about 90% of my days miserable as hell. My life is so different now because I’m not suffering all the time, I see the world in a different light, my relationships are better, and I’m not bogged down by fear. I never believed that I could be nicer, happier, healthier and more productive. I have a tool belt that I can rely on for many of life’s ups and downs. I get to experience the beautiful moment’s life has to offer, and that’s the biggest gift for me. It’s a pretty fucking awesome feeling for somebody like me who lived in a black hole for nearly 20 years.
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