UHF is proud to recognize Kenneth Cole for his role as founder and chairman of The Mental Health Coalition to destigmatize mental health conditions and enable equitable access to resources and support.

For more than 30 years, fashion designer Kenneth Cole has used his considerable clout to raise awareness of social causes, particularly the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In 1985 his company, Kenneth Cole Productions, launched the first AIDS public service ad campaign, aimed at removing the stigma that surrounds the disease. He served as chairman of the Foundation for AIDS Research for 14 years, was named a UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador, and in 2017 launched the End AIDS Coalition, with the goal of ending the disease by 2030. 

So it wasn’t surprising that the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) approached him a few years ago to sign on his firm as one of its first stigma-free companies, a designation for organizations that promote a culture of openness, acceptance, and understanding about employees’ overall health and well-being.

Kenneth readily admits he knew little about mental health, but he was eager to join, given the enormity of the crisis. The World Health Organization estimates that one in four people globally lives with a mental health condition; Kenneth figures that number is more likely four in four, when the impact on family and friends is added in. And, like AIDS, mental illness is too often accompanied by stigma and shame. 

From his work in AIDS advocacy Kenneth understood the value of coalitions. He approached leading mental health organizations about joining forces and in October 2019, on World Mental Health Day, he announced the formation of The Mental Health Coalition with eight nonprofit partners: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Bring Change to Mind, Child Mind Institute, Crisis Text Line, JED Foundation, Mental Health America, NAMI, and The Trevor Project. The Coalition’s mission statement: “Working together to end the devastating stigma surrounding today’s most prevalent public health crisis.”

“What Kenneth is really good at is being a convener, and a megaphone,” says Jennifer Moore, executive director of The Mental Health Coalition. He leveraged that megaphone by using his knowledge of branding, marketing, and media to mount a campaign to fight the stigma that keeps too many people from talking openly and honestly about behavioral health challenges. “There needs to be a cultural shift… a new narrative, a new vocabulary, a new way to talk about mental health that isn’t debilitating, but empowering,” he said. 

By the time the Coalition launched operations in May 2020, it had grown to three dozen mental health nonprofits, celebrities, and business leaders. It kicked off with an Instagram campaign by Kendall Jenner, the 25-year-old model and reality TV star who has been candid about her own struggles with anxiety and panic attacks.

The Coalition’s launch couldn’t have been timelier. The COVID-19 pandemic was rapidly gaining ground, and in a survey conducted in Spring 2020 by the Kaiser Family Foundation 45 percent of adults said the pandemic had affected their mental health. The pandemic underscored the need to change the narrative about mental health “to one that is non-clinical and non-stigmatized,” said Kenneth.

Changing that narrative started in earnest in June 2020 with a social media initiative created by Kenneth’s daughter, Catie Cole. How Are You, Really? is a social media storytelling platform that encourages people to answer that standard greeting honestly and openly, and start an authentic dialogue about their mental health.

On Instagram, the Coalition has posted a series of “1-2-1” video chats with performers, media stars, and mental health advocates such as Oprah Winfrey, Katie Couric, Lionel Richie, Charlamagne tha God, and D-Nice. The participants discuss how they got through challenging times and the supports available.

Then there’s the Coalition’s impressive, consumer-friendly website, filled with mental health resources and links to organizations that help people dealing with mental health issues. The website also offers resources specific to Black and Indigenous people and people of color; LGBTQ communities; Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; and friends and family. Some 96,000 visitors checked out the website’s resource pages in August and that number is growing.

In February 2021, the Coalition started a collaboration with Facebook to create social media tools that educate and empower young people to speak openly about their feelings and get the support they need. These include “Reality Check” augmented reality filters that allow users to visually express their feelings, and the “Mood Meter,” designed by Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, to help people express and manage their emotions. 

For his role as founder and chairman of The Mental Health Coalition, leading its efforts to destigmatize mental health conditions and enable equitable access to resources and support, United Hospital Fund is proud to present Kenneth Cole with its 2021 Special Tribute.