When Jamie Tworkowski met 19-year-old Renee Yohe in 2006, she was high on drugs and her arms were covered in self-inflicted scars.
Jamie, a Florida local, and his friends took her in for five days and, well, basically looked after her, having realising quite quickly that the teen was desperately in need of rehab. After the encounter, Jaimie felt compelled to pen Yohe’s story, so he published an online essay he titled: ‘To Write Love On Her Arms’.
Overnight, the piece went viral and Tworkowski was flooded with messages from people around the globe who struggled with similar issues as Yohe.
Out of this spawned a movement of people and an organisation of the same name, dedicated to bringing hope and help to people struggling with depression, addiction, self-harm and suicide.
Today TWLOHA (as it’s known by supporters) travels across the world, including Australia (where depression impacts one million Australians every year), bringing its message to millions of people at music festivals, in universities and online.
‘I wanted my friend Renee to stay alive—to get the help she needed and deserved, to find freedom and healing and sobriety, the chance to start again. Now all of that applies to thousands of people all over the world,’ Tworkowski shares with Warcry.
‘TWLOHA works to bring a message of hope to people, to let folks know that it’s okay to ask for help. We also get to invest in treatment and recovery. We continue to communicate, to tell stories and to serve as a bridge to professional help.’
On 30 March, TWLOHA celebrates 10 years of sharing its mission with the world.
To say it’s been a success a something of an understatement. There’s a movie of the same name, starring Kat Dennings (Two Broke Girls) and Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill), a New York Times best-selling book If You Feel Too Much, and the organisation has won numerous awards, including a US$1 million grant at the 2011 American Giving Awards, as well as receiving endorsement from celebrities such as Joaquin Phoenix, punk band Paramore and Supernatural’s Jared Padalecki.
It’s also donated more than $1.5 million to treatment and recovery and has a booming online store.
Irrespective of this success, though, the heart of TWLOHA stays the same. And that, Tworkowski says, is why so many people are drawn to it.
‘Our message is universal. We all relate to pain, to struggle, to questions. We all desire to be known, to be free, to be honest,’ he says. ‘So many people—too many—feel alone. Our message is that when it comes to your pain, you’re not alone in that place. It’s okay to be honest and it’s okay to ask for help.’
There’s little doubt of the emotional, social and economic burden of mental illness. Tworkowski personally answers messages from people who are struggling—more than 180,000 to date.
‘The stuff we talk about as an organisation, the stories in my book, all of that is deeply personal,’ he says. ‘I’m a person who struggles with depression. I take medicine and I went to counselling yesterday. I meet and hear from people all the time who are dealing with this stuff.’
While Tworkowski is a Christian, TWLOHA is not a Christian organisation; however, the faith-based elements of Tworkowksi’s original story are evident in their mission, which has allowed them to play a pivotal role in how the Church addresses mental illness. They join other voices, such as Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, in breaking the stigma that comes with these topics.
There is no simple solution to the epidemic of depression and suicide, says Tworkowski, but it all starts with being honest and addressing pain.
‘I believe in a God who invites us to be honest, not to fake it, not to pretend. The Church should be a place where people can come as they are, a place for people in need, people in pain,’ he says.
Therefore, the organisation is celebrating its 10-year anniversary the best way it knows how—through music and conversation. Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman will headline their flagship event ‘Heavy and Light’ at Orlando’s House of Blues, along with the young woman who began it all—Renee Yohe.
Knowing how far and wide its message has resonated, those behind TWLOHA are asking people around the globe to join in by sharing their own story of hope and healing, using the hashtag #TWLOHA10 on social media.
The conversation about mental illness is ongoing, but the message of TWLOHA has become a prompt for many, opening the door to healing and recovery. We cannot explain depression, but we can find unconditional love within it. As Tworkowski says, ‘We’re not alone, it’s something that affects so many people; it’s simply part of being alive.’
So how do we help a friend who is struggling with depression? ‘Talk to them and ask how they’re doing,’ he says simply. ‘Express concern and listen. Keep showing up and keep loving them. Encourage them to get the help they need and deserve. We are also huge advocates for counselling.’
The words Tworkowski penned a decade ago still impact people today. And as TWLOHA plays its part in the global conversation about depression, its grass-roots beginning is a great reminder that even our smallest actions can change lives. As Tworkowski said in his essay, ‘We are only asked to love, to offer hope to the many hopeless.’
If you are struggling, please visit twloha.com and call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
*The author interned with TWLOHA in 2013.