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The Hi, How Are You Project: A Chat With Co-Founder Tom Gimbel on Mental Health and Awareness

Born in our beloved Austin, the Hi, How Are You Project is a nonprofit that aims to inspire conversations that will ultimately remove the stigma around mental health. Influenced by artist and world-renowned musician Daniel Johnston (you’ll likely recognize his work if you’re a fellow mural lover), the founders Tom Gimbel and Courtney Blanton united to create the first Hi, How Are You Day on January 22, 2018. Honoring Johnston’s birthday, the two encouraged others around the city to take interest in a loved one, peer or friend by simply asking, “Hi, how are you?”

We had the chance to attend the third annual Hi, How Are You Day on January 22, 2020 at ACL Live at the Moody Theater. Read more about this amazing music and community experience in our article, Hi, How Are You Day 2020: Celebrating Daniel Johnston and Open Conversation.

Hi, How Are You Day 2020 – Photo by Leigh Kettle

I recently had the opportunity to chat with co-founder Tom Gimbel and learn more about his mission and hopes for the organization. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I was particularly excited to hear how we can help drive education and conversation on the topic even more.

So Tom, many of us know The Hi, How Are You Project was inspired by Daniel Johnston and his own battles with mental health, but can you share what personally drew you to starting this organization with your co-founder Courtney Blanton?

Gimbel: It was very personal. It was my experience working with Daniel for so many years, as well as personal struggles — those of family members and Courtney’s own personal struggles with depression throughout her adult life. It motivated us to want to do something in the space of mental health. It was Courtney who identified that phrase, “Hi, how are you?” as the perfect conversation starter. So we talked with the Johnston family about what we wanted to do, and they were very supportive. Not even three years ago we founded the Hi, How Are You Project, and at first we thought we’d do one concert at the Mohawk to celebrate Daniel’s birthday and raise awareness. What happened then was extraordinary.

We started to get letters from around the world and media outlets from around the world picked up on the story. And certainly, that’s because Daniel’s story is so well-known, and he had so many fans around the world. We saw it around the UK, and all these different publications like BrooklynVegan, SPIN and Rolling Stone. All these significant publications were talking about what we were doing. That really encouraged us, and at that point we committed to really going after it. We advanced from a concert at Mohawk to a concert at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, with The Flaming Lips headlining alongside a bunch of other tremendous acts. Then this year, our third Hi, How Are You Day, Cage the Elephant, White Denim and many more participated. It’s been a lot of fun and gratifying to see people respond to the concept, which is really very simple: Let’s remove the stigma around mental health. Let’s talk about it, and let’s start a conversation with those four little words, “Hi, how are you?”

That’s amazing. It’s so great to hear the impact that y’all have made around the world in just three years’ time.

Gimbel: Well, it’s not us as much as it is the community around it. There are so many partners and great people who have worked with us and have kind of picked up the torch and carried it forward. For us, it’s wonderful to just work with the people that we get a chance to work with and to see how they have joined us and become advocates and evangelists for what we’re trying to do.

Absolutely. It’s definitely a community-driven movement. I’d also love to hear your perspective on something. As you know, asking “Hi, How Are You?” is such a simple gesture, yet it tends to be an in-passing comment. A lot of folks aren’t genuine about it or don’t give enough time to listen what another person truly has to say. Why do you think that is?

Gimbel: Well, I think you really hit on it that it’s about sincerity. We say, “Hi, how are you?” as an informal greeting without really acknowledging the question or without really having the pause in the conversation to say, “No, really. How are you? How are you doing? I care about you, and I’m here to listen if there’s something that you need to talk about.” It’s really as simple as that. It’s shifting it from something informal to something meaningful and sincere that makes all the difference.

Photo Courtesy of the Hi, How Are You Project

I also understand that some people worry that they might not know what to say in response to a friend or loved one’s mental illness or struggles, or might not know how to help. What advice would you give to those who might be too afraid to invest in another’s mental well-being?

Gimbel: That is the number one question we get, or concern, of someone who doesn’t know how to start the conversation, doesn’t know how to react, or doesn’t feel that they are confident or that they are an expert. And the answer is, you don’t have to be an expert. It really is just about listening and being there for someone. Being present with someone. You don’t have to know the answers. Just listening and being present with someone else can have an incredible healing effect on that person. Sometimes [the best way] to help someone else to open up about what they’re going through is for you to share what you’re going through. A lot of times when you share an experience, you’ll find that a friend or a family member might then have the space and the opening to share themselves. It really is that simple. It’s just listening and being present.

How has this organization personally impacted you? What has been the most rewarding part about it?

Gimbel: One thing that’s gratifying is the fact that a whole new population is discovering the music and art of Daniel Johnston. I worked with Daniel for 26 years before he passed away last year, and I truly consider him one of the great songwriting geniuses of our time. I think his words were very meaningful, and to see people discovering his music and his art is really gratifying. And the fact that they’re associating the “Hi, how are you?” frog, that saying and that mural with mental well-being is really awesome. I’m really happy to see that. Then personally, just seeing the impact that it’s had on others, particularly strangers that you’ve never met, who you might see online sharing something because they’ve been inspired by this movement. I can’t tell you how amazing that is to see. It’s almost unbelievable for Courtney and I.

The other day I got a note from a teacher who had taken the recent Happy Habits infographic that we created about daily things that you can do for your mental well-being. We worked with an amazing artist named Ivan Mayorquin from Mexico City, who created these wonderful cartoon characters around each of the daily habits. The teacher told us that that was her curriculum for the day, that she had taught her students about the happy habits. Obviously, that just filled our hearts. It was amazing to hear something like that had come out of what we’re doing. Affecting young people, in particular, is really significant because we’ve all been there, in high school or college, and dealt with the pressures of adolescence and then your first experience away from home. That is a very common time for depression and anxiety to first manifest in someone’s life. Working with American Campus Communities and being able to impact young people is also extremely important and extremely gratifying.

Of course, the biggest topic right now is COVID-19. How do you think this situation and quarantine is impacting people’s mental health?

Gimbel: We were already seeing the start of the epidemic of mental illness occurring over the last 10 years. We’ve seen a really significant rise in mental illness statistics, and one factor that you can point to over the last 10 or so years is a proliferation of social media, and the fact that people were not being together in community. They were getting their social interactions from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and these artificial substitutes for human interaction. We are creatures that thrive when we’re in community, when we’re present with one another. We were already seeing that prior to the COVID-19 crisis, and now it’s certainly going to exacerbate the situation. There are a lot of folks who are going to be dealing with this, and the statistics that I’m seeing point to as much of half — 50% — of the population struggling with some sort of mental health issue right now.

It’s more important than ever that while we’re attending to our physical health, which obviously we need to, that we’re also paying attention to our mental health. One silver lining may come out of all of this, though. The COVID-19 crisis may be one of the greatest catalysts of our time for ultimately removing and ending the stigma around mental health conversation, because it’s so present in everybody’s life right now. It’s nothing to be ashamed about. It never was, but it’s certainly nothing to be ashamed about right now. If you are dealing with anxiety or depression or sadness and you don’t know why, it’s likely because you’re lacking that physical interaction. That face-to-face presence with somebody else produces a positive chemical response in our bodies, and we’re missing that right now.

I know you currently have a pledge for Mental Health Awareness month. Beyond encouraging people to ask, “Hi, how are you?” what else do you hope comes from this initiative?

Gimbel: We want people to have the conversation and to reach out to others, but I think the other side of it is selfcare and acknowledging your own mental health — practicing good daily habits to pay attention to your mental well being. We are best able to help others when we are healthy ourselves, right? It’s kind of a two-sided equation. Having the conversation and removing the stigma is one half of it, but it’s also learning how to take care of yourself. That will make you more able and better prepared to help others. Kind of like the old adage when you’re in the airplane and they’re doing the safety announcements. They tell you if you need to help somebody else, put on your own oxygen mask and then help your neighbor. It’s that same philosophy.

How else can people help further the cause? Are there other ways we can get involved or donate?

Gimbel: We encourage everybody to go to hihowareyou.org, and there’s a very simple online pledge that you can take, which is “Because mental health matters to me, I pledge to ask others, ‘Hi, how are you?'” Wherever people are present on social media, if they can take that pledge and share it with others, that’s tremendous. We’ve seen people do a video of themselves saying the pledge. That’s amazing too. It’s really as simple as that. It’s committing to participate and spreading the word. Something like this is most effective when we can get the word out there to thousands and millions of people. The more people can share it, the more likely this idea is to spread.

And then if someone wants to support the organization, there are some donation gifts online, where if you make a donation of a certain dollar amount, you’ll receive a thank you gift from us. It can range from a “Hi, how are you?” bandana, to t-shirts, hats and other things. We just appreciate everybody’s support. We’re really committed to this mission, and we’ve made some great progress over the last couple of years. There’s a lot more work to do, and we look forward to continuing.

What’s next for The Hi, How Are You Project? What hopes do you have for this year?

Gimbel: May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so that is a big annual focus for us. We’ll then turn our eyes to World Mental Health day in October and look at some events that we can do there. It’s also not too soon for us to begin planning Hi, How Are You Day 2021, which will take place January 22, Daniel Johnson’s birthday, at ACL Live at the Moody Theater. We’re hopeful and optimistic that we’ll be able to be together again and have a big concert, celebrating and honoring Daniel’s birthday and creating awareness for the mission.

If Daniel could share message right now to those who are struggling, what do you think it would be?

Gimbel: The thing about Daniel’s music and art is that, even though he dealt with mental health issues — he experienced depression, sadness, loneliness and emotions that we all feel — he always had a hopeful tone to his music, his art and his melodies. I look at his character, Joe the Boxer, and he would always say, “Keep punching, Joe.” I think that’s the kind of the message that he would share right now. That even though there are challenges we’re all facing, we can keep punching, we can support one another and things will get better.

If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you take a moment to commit to the Hi, How Are You Pledge and share your statement with friends, family and your personal communities. Upon taking the pledge, you’ll have the option to donate to receive a limited edition Happy Habits bandana, among other merchandise options featuring Daniel Johnston’s art. The first 100,000 pledges will unlock a $10,000 grant from American Campus Communities Foundation for the Hi, How Are You Project to continue to create media, events and peer-to-peer training programs that encourage open dialogue on mental well-being now during these concerning times and well into the future. Below is why I took the pledge. Let’s drive awareness together!

For more information on the Hi, How Are You Project visit https://hihowareyou.org/.

Featured image courtesy of the Hi, How Are You Project

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