Mirabella Roberts is the founder of Art to Reduce Mental Health Stigma, a nonprofit organization whose objective is to start conversations about mental health, a crucial subject that is often approached with discomfort, through workshops, performances and other events open to everyone, living with mental illness or not. During our interview, which was fittingly done on World Mental Health Day, Mirabella spoke about her interests, inspirations, and challenges she faces as a young entrepreneur. She knows that one day mental illnesses will be spoken about, considered, and treated in the same way as physical illnesses, and she feels powerful to be able to play a role in affecting that change. 

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland, the suburbs of D.C., and right now I live in Providence, Rhode Island. My mom’s family emigrated from Georgia about 40 years ago and the culture is very important to me. I grew up speaking Russian, cooking Slavic foods, and visited for the first time this past summer, which was amazing.

Outside of your career, what are your hobbies and interests?

My biggest hobby is slam poetry and spoken word poetry – it’s one of the major things that led me to start my nonprofit. I love reading and all other kinds of writing, short fiction for example. I also love to dance; I took ballet classes for a while as a child and stopped at 15, but now I’m getting back to it by taking a class at Brown. Cooking is another hobby, and I especially love cooking Georgian food. 

“I think being powerful means making a change that you feel really needs to be made.”

Are you reading a really great book right now or watching a great tv show?

I just finished reading Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood, which is a collection of poetry that explores relationships between nature, sexuality, and the female form. It was great and I would highly recommend. Right now, I’m watching The Good Place, which I love!

Where did you go to school, and what did you study?

I’m a senior at Brown University studying literary arts and public policy as a double major. I’ve always loved to write and consider myself a poet and I’m also very interested in social justice and the impact I can make, which translated to policy. At Brown, public policy is very interdisciplinary so I can take a range of classes including gender studies, ethics, and more.

Where did your inspiration for ARMS come from? 

During my freshman year at Brown my good friend from home committed suicide. I was really devastated and hopeless and became even more upset when I lost another friend shortly after. That was then followed by the suicides of numerous others in my hometown but nobody in my community talked about it. Mental health remained something that was only talked about in hushed tones and behind closed doors. This really frustrated me, but I also understood because I myself struggled with mental illness and I never knew how to talk about it. The thing is, we’re never taught how to discuss mental health in ways that are open and productive, and our society doesn’t make room for us to have these conversations.

One day, I found myself standing at an open mic in a room full of strangers and that’s when I finally began to tell my story. I recited a free verse poem about losing friends to suicide and my own struggles with mental health. It was the best catharsis and what was even more surprising and wonderful was that the strangers I read the poem to were coming up to me and asking honest, empathetic questions. They were asking about mental health, what it’s like to lose a friend to suicide, and what it’s like to have panic attacks. I never knew these conversations were possible at all, let alone with strangers. 

I wanted to give other people the opportunity to share their stories through art and a space for others to come listen through this medium. I started hosting art events and workshops through Rhode Island and what I found is that there’s a very large, unmet need for people to come together and talk about mental health in a way that’s comfortable – art really filled that niche. It’s a powerful tool in bridging understanding and conversation between those living with mental illness and those who don’t because we usually only want to talk about mental illness in clinical terms. But who doesn’t want to go to a poetry open mic, a gallery opening, or concert? Art makes what we’ve been conditioned to see as an uncomfortable conversation accessible and attractive.

We did a few years of “product testing” and now after three years, ARMS is a 501(c)(3) registered nonprofit whose mission is to end the stigma surrounding mental health. We found that empowering local artists to share their own narratives by granting them all the resources to host their own events is an effective way to do so. Any local artist can log into our website, use our app that’s about to be launched, or contact someone on the team, and they’ll very quickly be connected to a business we’re partnered with to use as a venue to host their event; these include coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and shared working spaces. They’ll also receive a manual with all the information on how to run an ARMS style event, each of which follows a three-part structure:

1) The opportunity to use a space as a platform to share their work. 

2) An engaging workshop on how to use art to share your own mental health story; this can include writing prompts, song circles, guided drawings, etc. 

3) An open platform: attendees can share their own art and stories in the style of a gallery walk or open mic.

Through this structure, local artists can gain exposure and community support by sharing their work, and local businesses benefit from the raised foot traffic during “off” or slower hours and by being connected to a good cause. All in all, it’s great for the community to come together, make art, and have meaningful conversations.

What are your goals for ARMS for the next few years?

We are in a fundraising heavy phase right now and are trying to raise $75,000 by March. That money will let us fully expand into New York City, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, pay our staff (we have about 40 volunteers that are passionate about ending the mental health stigma), and make sure that anyone who can’t afford tickets can still come to our events. Right now, our ticket model is “suggested donation” so our hope is that no one is deterred because they’re unable to pay. Our main goal for the next few years is expansion because Rhode Island isn’t the only area that needs this kind of programming – we want to make sure that artists and people in the community know that we exist.

What is a challenge you have faced or currently face, and how did you overcome it? 

A current challenge I’m facing right now is fundraising. This is tough for me because I started this organization not with the intention of making money but with the knowledge that a space like this was needed because I needed it in my own life. I’m learning that asking for money doesn’t mean that it takes away from our mission – in fact, it helps the mission by growing and reaching more people. 

On a personal note, possibly my biggest challenge is balancing being a full-time student and a nonprofit executive. There is an enormous amount of time that must go into school, friends & family, my hobbies, working full time and within the community, managing staff, making sure everything runs smoothly, and in how I present myself. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to navigate my self-image and how to portray myself so that I come across as a professional but also as a student that’s still growing and learning.

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs looking to enter the nonprofit industry?

My biggest piece of advice is not to start an organization just to start an organization. What I mean by that is to make sure that the problem you’re solving and solution you’re proposing are very clear and to be positive that there’s a well-defined, unmet need that you’re filling in the world. If there’s already an organization out there that’s doing the work you want to do, you can join forces with them and help lift them up instead of embarking on your own journey. When starting a nonprofit, it’s important that the way you approach a solution is one that you will stand by and vouch for.

One of my mentors, Jason Harry, a staff member of the Breakthrough Lab startup accelerator that I did this summer gave us some entrepreneurial advice: Everybody will give you their own advice so you should take all those pieces of advice that you receive as data points. You don’t have to agree or disagree with everything you hear but reckon with the different data points and then come to your own conclusion. 

What is the biggest change you’d like to see in society when it comes to mental health?

I want everyone to be able to talk about mental illness like an illness because that’s exactly what it is. When someone has a broken arm, we don’t shy away from talking about it; we slap a bright pink cast on and get excited to sign it. When someone struggles with mental illness, suddenly our community gets quiet and the only way to encourage people to get help and to eliminate the roadblocks people face trying to do so is beginning to talk about it. I know that one day we’ll be able to talk about mental health openly and be in a place where people can say, “I’m not okay today,” and others will make space and just listen. 

Is there a product you use often that makes you feel empowered, and why? 

There’s a few!

  1. Thinx underwear (the period-proof underwear); I think they’re awesome and empowering. 
  2. The Headspace app; I have found meditation to be difficult but so important.
  3. Any blank notebook and a really inky pen – there’s nothing better than an inky pen.

 

What does it mean for you to be powerful? 

I used to think being powerful meant making the most amount of change. As a kid, you have that cheesy mentality of “I want to change the world!” Now, I think being powerful means making a change that you feel really needs to be made. In my life so far, it’s been the mental health stigma, and, in the future, it’ll probably be something else as well. But making the change that is important to me and keeps driving me forward is how I will continue to feel powerful.

It’s also so important to talk to people around you and, for me, talking to my mom and loved ones empowers me. I’ve been in places where I’ve been doing a million different things but felt weak because I wasn’t making time for people around me. Being powerful means taking the time to recognize what’s important to me and then doing it. 

Interview by Jyothi Nair