So Cole, then in his 30s, decided to use his budding influence as a businessman and designer to encourage people to talk openly about it. He took out full-page ads in magazines. He rallied celebrities, supermodels and scientists for awareness campaigns. He joined the board of the AIDS research organization amfAR, where he served until 2018.
Now, after more than three decades of work on that crisis, Cole is bringing the same blueprint to mental health.
On Friday, Cole launched the Mental Health Coalition, a collection of three dozen advocacy groups, celebrities and business leaders whose primary goal is to remove the stigma around mental health and help people access the services they need.
The effort is beginning at a perilous time for mental health in the United States, with the coronavirus pandemic giving rise to widespread psychological trauma and straining the nation’s already fragmented and underfunded mental health system. Large portions of Americans have reported that the crisis has harmed them psychologically, and hotlines for people in emotional distress have experienced spikes in calls and texts. Researchers worry that the effects of isolation, job loss, illness and death could linger long after the virus subsides.
Cole, who conceived the coalition before the virus hit, said the realities of the pandemic underscored the need to change the narrative about mental health "to one that’s non-clinical and non-stigmatized.”
“You can’t do something like that unless it’s done collectively,” he told The Washington Post via Zoom. “You need one cohesive path.”
The coalition kicked off Friday morning with an Instagram campaign spearheaded by Kendall Jenner that calls on people to share videos of themselves speaking honestly about their mental health challenges and how they deal with them.
Some of the videos from the initiative, called “How are you, really?”, will be featured on a standalone page after careful vetting from mental health experts to make sure they aren’t triggering for anyone who visits. The first features a quarantined Jenner opening up about her coping strategies on the days when she feels anxious.
“During this quarantine, I have realized that now, more than ever, mental health is so important,” she told The Post in a statement. “I wanted to instill some hope in everyone out there and let them know that they are not alone.”
One of the key players in the coalition is the Crisis Text Line, a fast-growing mental health service that became the country’s first organization to offer round-the-clock support via text when it launched in 2013. Nancy Lublin, the chief executive, said she was surprised when she got a call from Cole in the fall asking if she would join.
“I was like, wait, am I being punked?” she said.
As they talked, she was impressed that Cole seemed well-versed in mental health issues and wasn’t coming with any additional agenda. She remembers telling him: “If you can make it cool to share feelings, do that, because that’s what you know how to do. That’s your swimming lane. Take that lane.”
Cole is the first to admit he has no special expertise in mental health.
“We started convening all these well-informed people, and I’m not any of those well-informed people,” he said. “I’m probably the least informed of the circumstances that surround mental health, and it’s not something I’ve committed my life to. But I am good at committing well-intended resources and inspired by the work they can do.”
While Cole’s past advocacy efforts have won him plenty of partners and admirers, they haven’t been without controversy. His 2005 “I Have AIDS" T-shirt campaign was too blunt for some people. And after a decades-long tenure with amfAR, he stepped down as chairman in 2018 after board members raised concerns about some of the organization’s charitable transactions.
Supporters say Cole’s boldness is an asset, and say his long track record of public service campaigns makes him well-equipped to take on mental health.
Zach Iscol, founder of the Headstrong Project, which provides mental health treatment for military veterans, signed on with the Mental Health Coalition after he and Cole spoke about the challenges his organization was facing.
The biggest barrier to getting veterans treatment was convincing them to seek help in the first place, Iscol said. The coalition can help people take that step, he said.
“It’s not just a hashtag. It’s not just reach out and see how somebody’s doing," he said. “There are resources here as well.”
Cole said his fascination with the science behind mental health is part of what drives him. He was particularly shaken by research on the psychological effects of quarantine during the SARS outbreak that showed certain groups of people, including front-line workers, experienced post-traumatic stress and depression after being confined for long periods.
“Just imagine the impact that’s going to happen here. That’s going to last so much longer and penetrate so much deeper into our communities after we come through this process,” he said. But there’s also “very clear science and research that shows how you can move forward.”
In the long term, Cole wants the Mental Health Coalition to steer resources and funding to mental health programs, many of which have been left on the brink of financial collapse because of the pandemic. And when the time is right, he said, he’s prepared to hand over the reins of the organization to someone else, likely a mental health expert.
“If I can shine a light on the work that they do,” he said, “there’s so much more that we can accomplish collectively.”