Meet Rebecca Heilweil and Clare Connaughton, The Women Changing the Mental Health Stigma for Young Adults

Meet Rebecca Heilweil and Clare Connaughton,  The Women Changing the Mental Health Stigma for Young Adults

One in four people worldwide will experience a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Each case is different, just as each person and each mind is different. For this reason, two undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania—Rebecca Heilweil and Clare Connaughton—have set out on a venture to shed light on the experiences of young people struggling with mental illness.

Through journalism, art, and photography, Beautiful Minds magazine aims to open a discourse on a subject that is too often overlooked by mainstream media. These two young women have both been affected by mental health themselves, and they strive to help others understand that they are not alone in their struggles and find common ground through the narratives of their peers. Rebecca and Clare talked to HelloFlo about their mission.


What is Beautiful Minds, and what inspired you to start it?

RH: That’s a good question, and a complicated one, since Clare and I are still, in many ways, figuring it out. Beautiful Minds, at its core, is a magazine trying to address the distance between two realms: mental health and young people. I think the idea stemmed from a coalescing of different, but equally impactful moments during my freshman year of college. A good number of my friends were dealing with mental health issues at the time, while I was simultaneously doing mental health policy research for Stephen Fried, a journalist and author who has served as a fantastic advisor for me, and is doing fantastic work. I began noticing how far away the mental health journalism world seemed from the youth and college experience.

One moment that sticks to out to me in particular: I had a piece about my own mental health published in my college’s arts and culture magazine – nothing major. A couple weeks after it ran, my therapist mentioned that she had read it, and that other patients had found the piece helpful. Of course, they didn’t know she was the therapist mentioned in my piece, and I don’t know who they are. But the fact that it had made that impact on people I didn’t know, and even come up in a clinical setting, was moving.

After that, I ended up reaching out to a young woman who had recently graduated from my high school and wanted to do a similar thing. I also ended up began talking to Clare about my ideas for the project, and she seemed really into it, as someone who is incredibly interested in social welfare and non-profit work. We ended up being perfect complements for each other.

CC: Beautiful Minds was at very nascent stages when Rebecca reached out to me and asked if I wanted to work on it with her. I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, but I have always had passions for journalism and civic engagement. Rebecca is also my best friend, and I admire her ideas and insights and figured that anything she would take on would be worth getting involved with.

As we began to develop our goals and missions, it quickly became clear to me how much need there is for a publication like this. The biggest challenge for me, and my own mental health, was feeling very isolated and feeling like I had no one else to share my experience, especially at a competitive university. I also felt as though what I was going through wasn’t represented or reflected in national media discourse.


What do you hope contributors and readers gain from the magazine?

RH: There’s this great essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” by this writer Marina Keegan, that I often find really addresses what were going for. In the piece, she says, “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.” I think that sentiment really exemplifies what we’re going for, bridging mental health and young people.

I think Clare and I have both felt loneliness, especially in regards to issues of mental health, and I don’t ever want someone to have to feel that way. We’re not building an organization of people, exactly, but we are assembling a fluid and growing collection of stories. I hope that one kid’s writing will have an impact on another, and give them a vocabulary to begin talking. That’s the first step.

CC: Keegan’s essay is fantastic, and I definitely agree. Personally, as Rebecca said, if one person comes across a piece and can relate or feel empowered to seek help or at least not feel like they are alone in their experiences, then that is fantastic. We’re really hoping to develop a community– including those who do not have mental illnesses but are allies, and want to gain more insight – who are interested and committed to contributing to open dialogue on mental illness in young people.


What has been your biggest challenge in launching the magazine, and what steps did you take to overcome it?

RH: It’s really strange, as what I anticipated being challenging, collecting submissions, ended up being fairly easy. But reading and editing pieces can be really heavy. Some of the pieces submitted have come from friends, and some from people I have never met. Still, the depth to which young students are dealing with mental health issues is daunting and scary. It can be really sad and frustrating at times.

CC: We want to do our best to present people’s truths, their honest stories, but the lines with trigger warnings and political correctness can be hard to navigate. We do not want to censor someone’s truth, and we want to have free discourse, but at the same time we don’t want to be insensitive or offensive to individuals who may want to be more protective of the language used. This is the same sort of debate we have had with accepting anonymous pieces. We want to be unapologetic with what we publish but we also want to protect the identities of the individuals who won’t feel comfortable disclosing who they are.


Can you describe one the most inspiring moments for you so far in this endeavor?

RH: The best moment is when someone submits a piece because of another piece they read on our site. That’s discourse and conversation, at a deep level, originating in experience. The sophistication of some of the writing is fantastic. People trusting us. It’s a weird moment; we’re still teenagers. just college students. But people trust us, and that’s inspiring.

CC: Receiving feedback from both close friends as well as people I’ve only met in passing who have told me either that a piece they read really resonated with them, that it articulated some of the feelings or thoughts they felt throughout the school-year, or people who have told me that they felt there was a need to have a publication like Beautiful Minds. We have even received feedback from strangers who enjoy what we are working towards. Sometimes I worry that we are doing a lot of work but have such a long way to go before accomplishing the goals we have set for ourselves, so to even have a few people, let alone hundreds already, tell us that we’re doing a great thing has been so humbling.


What are your hopes for the future of Beautiful Minds?

RH: We want to continue sharing narratives and doing investigative journalism, by young people for young people. I also want to make sure that we’re getting narratives from a diverse assortment of schools, especially from more rural areas, where mental healthcare access is really struggling.

CC: Many times mainstream media outlets report on mental health but ignore how these issues uniquely affect people of color, LGBT – especially trans youth – communities, and undocumented students, so I really hope we continue striving to shed light on how these groups are impacted by mental illness and provide information as well as advocate for improved resources for these groups. I recently read an article about how severely undertrained and undereducated suicide and mental health hotlines are in trans issues and that is incredibly heartbreaking and unacceptable. These resources are supposed to save lives and instead can potentially cause more harm.

On a lighter note, we want to start experimenting with social media, now that we have set up a Twitter account especially, and increase our reach through there. We’ve bounced around ideas on doing a photo campaign on our university’s campus. Sort of a play on #NoFilter, combining body positivity with mental health positivity. This might manifest in a photo-mosaic-social impact project; we’re not sure yet. Ultimately, we are hoping these sorts of campaigns bring more awareness to young people’s mental health issues.


Do you have any advice for readers who may be struggling with mental illness?

RH: If you are in immediate danger, call 911. As soon as you have done that, ask for a crisis intervention team. There are also a multitude of hotlines and services available, for both short term and long term help. We list a bunch at our resources page here.

CC: You aren’t alone in your struggles. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking help if you even suspect you may be have depression or anxiety, or any other mental illness or mental health concern.


Do you have any advice for women who want to start their own nonprofit?

RH: Don’t be scared of bureaucracy. We’re still working on these things, but reach out for advice. Help will come from the strangest, but best, places. We had a someone write about dealing with an anxiety disorder at magic camp as a child, and being featured in a documentary. Then, the Twitter for the documentary retweeted the piece. It was weird, but also really awesome.

Working and partnering with your best friend is also a great place to start. Having a sense of humor, and being human, is incredibly important. The cover photo for our staff Facebook group is Benedict Cumberbatch; we jam out to our favorite singers when we feel stressed. That’s okay, and good.

CC: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the amount of work and time it will take, and there may be people who try to dissuade you or intimidate you, but if you really believe in your idea, yourself and the people you work with, it will all be worth it. Surrounding yourself with positive, motivating, and encouraging people is key. Don’t be afraid of having ambitious goals and having huge ideas.


Your mental health is too important to overlook. If you or anyone you know is in crisis, do not hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

To learn more about Beautiful Minds, check out their website, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter.