TWLOHA founder offers support

Jessica Stallings

Jamie Tworkowski

Jamie Tworkowski is the founder of the worldwide organization To Write Love On Her Arms. The organization was founded in 2006 and is a nonprofit movement that is dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide. Tworkowski began the movement to help raise money for a friend’s treatment and quickly spread to several countries. The organization has raised over $850,000 to help pay for treatment and recovery programs.

Q. How did this organization come together?

A. It started in 2006 just as an attempt to help a friend, Renee, (who) was struggling with drug addiction, depression, self-injury and suicide. I wrote a story called “To Write Love On Her Arms” and posted it on MySpace. Then my friends and I started selling T-shirts as a way to pay for her treatment. Both of those things kind of got out in front of people in a really surprising way. We started receiving messages with questions, people opening up, basically saying that they could relate to her story. The messages kept coming and the shirts kept selling, and that gave us the opportunity to talk about those issues on a bigger scale. We learned more about the issues and we began trying to let people know that it was okay to talk about those things and it was okay to ask for help. We were able to invest in help on a bigger scale – treatment and recovery. So many surprising doors have opened for us. Going online, to college campuses, music tours and festivals – giving us so many different settings and different groups of people where we get to bring this conversation and invite people into it.

Q. How old were you when this all began?

A. I was 26 when it started and I am 33 now.

Q. Why did you feel that you had to do something?

A. I really wasn’t the lead guy in the beginning. I was just invited to meet this girl and the invitation felt significant so I said yes. My friend’s story was one of addition and recovery. … It just felt really important at the time. Then (there was) the financial need to pay for her treatment and I just had a couple simple ideas that I thought could maybe help. I had no idea that any of this would happen.

Q. How did this become a worldwide organization so quickly?

A. The support of bands had a lot to do with it. Musicians started to wear our shirts on stage and that had so much to do with how people found out about it. Also around that time, the nature of MySpace had the “Top Eight.” People started to put our page in their “Top Eight.” It really was just a story of people getting excited about something and using whatever influence they had. Certain bands might have a certain degree of influence, but a kid at school has some influence too, even if it’s just to his five friends. It really was just people talking about it. You hear a lot about the worst of the Internet but I think we got to see the best of the Internet. We started to hear from people in countries and continents we had never been to, where we didn’t know anyone. And yet, because these bands had fans worldwide, pretty quickly people worldwide began to find out about it. We learned that these are not just American issues, these are issues that affect (people) all over the world. It’s not as if suddenly we have offices all over the world or people based there. We have been able to do some events in different places, but we feel like with just the nature of the Internet, we are able to invite people into the conversation and we are able to communicate our message to people worldwide.

Q. Why do you think so many people support and have such a great connection with this organization?

A. I think it just points to the need. I think so many people feel alone or are dealing with the issues that we talk about. There are a lot of lies out there. There is a tremendous stigma that suggest that if you struggle with this stuff you can’t really talk about it, that you are alone. I think we sort of accidentally have just given people permission to know that it’s okay to be honest and to say that they deserve to be known and to be loved, to know that it’s okay to ask for help and that help really does exist. Hopefully we have done that in a way that is creative. We value language and we value design. I didn’t grow up wanting to run a charity and with that I think there has been a lot freedom where we don’t try to look or sound like everything else out there, in some ways because we don’t even know how. We kind of joke that we aren’t smart enough to make it up, so we don’t. We are just doing something really different. We are just really trying to move people. It’s been amazing to see people respond. But I think it’s less about us doing anything brilliant and more that there is just a need. People need to know that they are not alone and need to know that it’s okay to tell their story.

Q. Why do you personally think there are so many people that struggle with these certain problems?

A. It seems to be a part of being human, and just being alive on this planet. That we get stuck, we lose things, we lose relationships and we lose people. Life, hopefully not all the time, but life a lot of the time is really hard. It seems to be harder for some people than others but that is just part of this experience of being on this planet. I don’t really know beyond that, but the cool thing is that this means we can relate to each other. That maybe other people have been where we are and that maybe other people struggle with what I do, or maybe I have been through something that someone else is currently dealing with. There is kind of a silver lining to it.

Q. Why do you think it’s so important for people, especially students, to hear your message?

A. We know that these are issues that young people deal with. These are issues that exist on college campuses. But beyond that, these are issues that affect people of all ages. Our team is made up of young people and it’s been amazing to see doors open on college campuses and it seems to be a part of the culture of colleges, where they bring in speakers and events, which gives a lot of freedom to talk about different things and to engage different subjects and even different problems. To me, these problems exist at the high school level and even younger than that. But for me personally, it feels like kind of a sweet spot to get to be around this age group. The nature of the event is normally that people come to want to be there. It’s people that want to hear this talk, or people that are just curious. We know these issues affect adults and seniors as well, but to me, I’m really thankful to get to know and spend a lot of time among this setting and this age group.

Q. What do you think is the best advice for someone struggling with thoughts of suicide or who have depression?

A. (They should) know that it is okay to ask for help, first by simply talking to someone. Just hoping that they have a support system, or a group of friends, or even just one friend that they could start by reaching out to. Beyond that, know that there are professionals that want to help. Even here on this campus, there is a counseling office where there are people trained and dedicated to helping students who are struggling in that way. More often than not it’s free for students, which is great. Just beginning to be honest and starting to talk about it, you realize that suddenly you are not alone and it’s not just in your head. Hopefully that gives them a friend or a group of friends can even literally walk them into to that counseling appointment, or to treatment, or whatever it is that they need. We have really come to believe in both and that’s what a lot of the message is about. People deserve whatever help they need and they deserve people that care about them.

Q. Do students, or just people in general, affect your life when you are traveling and hearing many others’ stories?

A. I certainly hear lots of stories, great ones and hard ones. I am constantly reminded what is at stake, whether it is someone choosing to stay alive, or getting help, or having family that they have recently lost. People assume that really affects me the most, but for whatever reason I’m more affected by my own stuff. It’s an interesting line to walk because you want to be available to it but not overwhelmed by it. Most of our day looks pretty normal and then there is just this window of a couple hours that it is very different.

Q. What is your favorite thing about what you do?

A. I get to meet people who say they are still alive because of the work that we do. And that means different things. To some people that means it’s something they heard at one of our events and for other people it’s something they read on our website. But I can’t imagine a better compliment than to meet someone who literally might not be alive (because of me). That is definitely the best part. And with that, I get to do a job that I really believe in and I get to bring my heart to work, which I think it pretty rare. I have done a lot of different jobs, washing dishes or delivering pizzas, so I know this is a privilege that I try not to take for granted.