When Aaron Harvey was finally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in his thirties, he was relieved to have answers but frustrated it took so long to get them. Determined to shorten the time from onset of symptoms to diagnosis, he set out to educate others about OCD, specifically intrusive thoughts.
Now he’s expanded his scope from OCD to all kinds of mental illness. This month his foundation Made of Millions is running an initiative called No One Told Me—people with a mental illness are sharing what they wish they’d known about their condition when they first experienced symptoms, and for many those symptoms appeared in childhood.
Let’s hear what else Aaron has been up to.
A few years ago you launched IntrusiveThoughts.org, a resource dedicated to obsessive-compulsive disorder—specifically many of the gut-wrenching thoughts people with OCD struggle with. You didn’t stop there, though. In 2018 you founded the nonprofit Made of Millions to bring more awareness to all mental illness, not just OCD. Why?
After living with undiagnosed OCD for two decades, suddenly I had an identity with OCD—not to mention other diagnoses—and I quickly realized that just looking at a human as having OCD or looking at OCD as something to be treated independent of any other symptomology is problematic. On one hand it’s super important to have that level of connection and understand that there are other people who experience intrusive thoughts and tremendous amounts of anxiety associated with that, but on the other hand it puts you in a box and it doesn’t look at the totality of the human experience. My personal inspiration stemmed from the fact that people who have one condition likely have a lot of overlap with other conditions, and we need to educate people on a much broader spectrum of symptomology that a lot of us share, not just obsessions and compulsions, and to try to look at how to treat the whole person or how to navigate treatment for the whole person. A lot of treatment for OCD is so locked in to ERP, which is a tremendously beneficial behavioral skill to learn, but it doesn’t address the underlying guilt and shame and depression and broader spectrum of anxiety.
Also, we wanted to address the idea that recovery is nonlinear, and a big part of what’s nonlinear is the depression and hopelessness you feel when your symptomology goes from seemingly under control to being wild and raging again. There’s so much fear and even shame because you feel like you should be able to handle it better—you’ve already done it once, why is it happening again?
When we as people with OCD isolate ourselves to other people and other nonprofits and articles and videos that are all about OCD, we’re not exposing the broader world to what OCD symptomology really is and where the overlap is with that symptomology. I want people who have anxiety to understand that it can manifest in a way where it’s so extreme that you start to have compulsions to try to get rid of it. We didn’t want to just become another OCD nonprofit; we wanted to look at how we can expand the conversation well beyond that. Even another reason, if I’m being sort of blunt, from a business perspective there’s only so much interest in OCD, and a big reason for that is OCD is very misunderstood in the media. We haven’t done a good job of educating society at large on what it is. That makes it harder to create a workplace program that forces millions of people, on behalf of their employers, to learn about mental health conditions.
Why did you decide to focus on the workplace, in particular creative agencies?
In order for us to make an impact, we needed to start where we felt we could make immediate change. With my work in advertising, running a creative shop and my connections to agencies and associations and media companies like Verizon Media and Spotify, I had a great starting point to say, “Hey, can we make change in this specific environment?”
One of the catalysts for that was an intern in my company who had a manic episode in the office—he doesn’t recall what happened but had lost control, was acting strangely, going into random meetings, shouting things, and it devolved over a period of hours into things being thrown off desks and voices raised and what felt like a threatening situation. No one in my company had any idea what was going on and made no associations to that being anything mental health related. This was right before I started advocating—I knew I had OCD but I hadn’t shared it—and my company was unprepared to handle that. And it really had a negative effect on his life, and it had a negative effect on ours because essentially we could have at a minimum been able to spot those symptoms and figure out a better way forward with this individual, and instead it didn’t end up great for anyone. We’re this liberal work environment, we’re very open, we have an award-winning culture, and we had no idea this was a mental health red flag. We could have called a paramedic instead of a cop, or could have done this instead of that. There’s a million things we could have done.
I looked at that as my personal responsibility. Here I am, an entrepreneur, at that point just being open about my mental health conditions, advocating for it, being totally receptive to it with a team that’s totally receptive to it, and yet we had no idea what to do. How is this possible? The workplace felt like a very tangible thing to chip off and make an impact, specifically within advertising agencies where not only do I have connections but also there’s a long history of people being overworked, anxiety and depression, substance use, and burnout.
What became really the most beautiful insight in my work doing advocacy is that suddenly what went from being a campaign about trying to transform the work environment and make people more aware when they’re at work turned into me realizing that if we really want to make societal change we need to teach mental health education. There’s only one entity that has a financial interest in doing that and that is the corporation. Being able to force corporations to take a stand for educating their employees on what are mental health conditions, how do you seek care, what’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist, what treatments are available, how do you use an IEP, how do you access benefits, what should you expect, how do you interview a doctor, how do you get help for your kids—that became suddenly a really powerful platform for us to go after a much broader swath of the population.
In an ideal sort of world, if you take someone like a Burger King and you shift them away from making opportunistic happy meals and toward investing in the mental health education of their staff, that means the corporate executive making five hundred grand a year is getting the same quality of education the minimum wage worker who is a cashier in Delray Beach, Florida, is getting. That knowledge equality is huge when it comes to trying to shift the dynamic in our country, so that’s why we have a program around Dear Manager, which shifted from a campaign to a program, and that’s why we’re actively building out these educational tools and selling them to corporations as things they should mandate alongside sexual harassment training and other things of that nature.
Tell us more about that, how Dear Manager is now an ongoing initiative.
It’s been really amazing. There’s been a multitude of corporations or agencies that have actually implemented tangible change out of Beautiful Brains guide. We’ve done several events with Shopify from Montreal to Toronto. We’ve done events in New York and we even have other companies now that are using Dear Manager to do their own internal campaigns using our creative and platform to have their leaders step up and be vulnerable in front of their employees and try to do a better job educating people. Dear Manager is an easy enough concept that people keep asking to get involved in doing it. And it’s not about doing it our way or using our Beautiful Brains guide full stop. Just use it as a jumping off point and decide what makes sense for your organization.
How can people get involved? When you say people ask to get involved, who are those people—individuals, companies?
That’s the beautiful thing, it’s such a broad array of people, meaning it’s a junior designer or intern all the way up to a CEO. Historically, consultants and nonprofits have gone to HR departments and said, “Hey, you should consider mental health.” But what they didn’t do was understand that HR departments are already tremendously overburdened, and going to ask them to do yet more things with no more resources and no more pay is not a realistic situation. It’s not that HR isn’t getting things done, it’s that they have so many things to do and so little resources to do it.
Our approach was very different, it was to empower the employee to demand that the employer do more, the same way consumers are demanding that companies become more sustainable in their supply chain. It’s the same exact approach. While it might create short-term pressure on HR, ultimately it put more pressure on the C-suite to say, “Okay, we do need to think about this” and ask HR what resources they need because this isn’t currently in scope of their day-to-day activities. It’s basically circumvented the bureaucracy of corporations and put the power closer to the people, so that’s why we’ve seen such a broad array of people—in 99.9 percent of cases there is not a manager in a corporation responsible for mental health of the organization. What does that mean? It’s people who are championing a cause on their own, and I’ve been shocked to meet, for example, Jane Son, who’s our board chair now. She runs a consortium of over a dozen of the largest law firms in the world who come together once a quarter on their own as partners to make change from a diversity and inclusion perspective. So you have these little groups that are not getting paid and they’re out here championing it, and they could be high executives or they could be junior employees emailing a document to HR and saying, “I think this is cool, can we do something about it?” That’s really what it’s about, a democratized approach to change.
Imagine you’re riding the elevator with the CEO of a company on another floor, and she says, “Hey, you’re that mental health guy. My employees’ mental health is none of my business—if someone can’t handle the job as it’s laid out, they can work somewhere else.” How would you respond before she gets off the elevator?
I would say, “You’re a dinosaur.” My gut immediately goes to something around her organization being a liability because I just don’t think someone in her shoes understands anything other than money and risk mitigation. Who cares about what the process is to achieve an outcome so long as the outcome is achieved? What is already happening with coronavirus is I have no idea when people are working. I don’t care. As long as they show up on the conference call and the work is ready, I don’t give a shit whether someone is working from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. and sleeping all day. It’s just irrelevant. For corporate jobs where you’re not physically standing behind a register or something, we’re going to learn quite a bit about not just remote work but also a shift from this idea of we’re 9 to 5 to we’re 9 to 5 with accommodations in certain ways or we’re really liberal because people can come in as late as 10 or work from home once a week. We’re dipping our toes in, and when we come back to work I’m not going to give a shit whether people are in the office or out of the office as long as deliverables are there, interaction points are timely, and if there’s brainstorms we do those in person if possible. The reality is this is going to fundamentally change the way we work. It’s going to be really interesting in the end.