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Lily Cornell Silver Turned Tragedy Into Mental Health Advocacy

Lily Cornell Silver hadn’t been in lockdown long when she realized her mental health was starting to deteriorate. It came upon her as a spike in her anxiety and depression brought on by the same thing everyone was experiencing: isolation and the novel coronavirus threat. It didn’t take long for Cornell Silver to realize she wasn’t alone. It is a shared traumatic event through which nearly everyone is struggling.

After the first wave of COVID-19 died down, the CDC released data on how Americans were coping, and all was not well. Adults reported elevated adverse mental health conditions, including increased substance abuse and suicidal ideation, disproportionately affecting young adults, racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers.

While this disease traveled invisibly in the air, it was clear to Cornell Silver that many people needed a space to grapple with having their lives turned upside down and their fraying mental states. So, she decided to make that space.

“I wanted to talk about it in an interview setting and not just in a podcast,” she tells UPROXX over the phone. “I wanted to talk about it where you could see people’s faces. Especially in a time when people need human contact.” That’s how Cornell Silver came to create and host Mind Wide Open, an IGTV interview series focused on mental health in which she talks to musicians, artists, and mental health experts about everything. It touches on what we’re going through now, how to create art in a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and demystifies more significant questions about mental health through matter-of-fact conversations that detail lived experiences.

When Cornell Silver started feeling out of whack, she was dealing with more than just the pandemic. The third anniversary of the death of her father, Chris Cornell, was in May. Mind Wide Open launched in July, on what would have been his birthday. Cornell Silver is diagnosed with depression and PTSD and struggles with grief. She has spoken out publicly about sharing some of the same struggles as him/ Being the facilitator of this conversation has cost her something most take for granted: privacy.

“My situation is unique in the sense that my grief and a lot of my mental health struggles are public without me intending them to be public,” she explains. “I’ll enter spaces where I don’t know people, and they will know about my biggest trauma before they’ve met me.”

Talking about it became something Cornell Silver is used to, thanks in part to her mom and Alice in Chains’ longtime manager, Susan Silver. Cornell Silver notes that her mom put her in therapy starting at age seven, and she credits her ongoing treatment by giving her the vocabulary to talk about her experiences and make sense of them. Her connections via her parents into the world of music have helped her land guests who are longtime family friends, including Eddie Vedder and Duff McKagan. A lifetime of hearing from her father’s fans about how his music saved their lives has impressed upon her that there is a close relationship between music and mental health. She sees the intergenerational conversation happen through her viewers, who frequently tell her that her show episodes have opened a dialog with their parents.

“There is a benefit in seeing people you admire talk about how they struggle with depression, how they struggle to get out of bed in the morning. I feel that way when Billie Eilish talks about mental health,” she says. “I wanted to have people like Eddie and Duff come on the show so that people could see a rock god they grew up with struggling with the same thing.”

According to Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, Founder and Director of the Trauma Stewardship Institute and a guest on Mind Wide Open, having this conversation at all is an essential step in our current climate. And having it with someone working through their trauma is a helpful tool for destigmatizing mental health conversation.

“One of the things that is precarious about trauma is when we get isolated,” van Dernoot Lipsky explains. “Part of what’s powerful when talking about [trauma], particularly when it’s not theoretical but from someone who has the lived experience, is that it can interrupt the isolation, so many people feel. Any time we have folks who are willing to be courageous, find the wherewithal to talk about it, and make themselves vulnerable while still being self-respecting, it can mean so much to others.”

For Cornell Silver, having access to therapy has helped her understand and manage her symptoms, but articulating them has been the most impactful result. One of the biggest misconceptions she would warn people about in therapy is that there will be an immediate impact. For her, it took until she was about 16 to find a therapist with whom she resonated. “If you go to therapy and it isn’t immediately helpful, don’t be discouraged at all,” she cautions.

The trauma of oppression and racial inequity came to the forefront of discourse just before Mind Wide Open launched, with the death of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that followed. For Cornell Silver, the intention was always to make conversations around mental health intersectional and to discuss getting access to resources, like therapy, that can be game-changers for those struggling — but also challenging and expensive to access. After the protests, Mind Wide Open wove in conversations about the trauma of being a minority community in America.

Whatever stage of grief individual protesters were in, it showed that collectively many Americans are not at a place of acceptance of the mistreatment and dehumanization of BIPOC, and the Black community in particular, and marginalized communities. It was a second national trauma, making itself felt through mass action. In conversation with David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage Of Grief, came a discussion of the protests’ meaning. Kessler, who co-authored mentee Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s groundbreaking book on the five stages of grief, posited that what we were witnessing was mass grieving. For some, it was an expression of justified anger while others were demonstrating in Kessler’s proposed sixth stage, attempting to find meaning in the wake of their grief.

Cornell Silver says that conversation was among the most memorable for her. “The last stage of grief in the five stages is acceptance. I don’t feel like I’ve come to that place [with my father’s death], and I think a lot of people when they lose their loved ones don’t come to a place where they accept it,” she explains. “You still feel the need to do something, and you’re still actively grieving.”

In Cornell Silver’s opinion, the best thing to come out of the series is the stories from people who have facilitated conversations. “I’ve had quite a few people write and say, I watched this with my dad, with my kids, my friend, my significant other, and it opened up a conversation for us to talk about things we’ve never talked about before. That’s all I could hope for.”

Talking about it and destigmatizing it is an expression of kindness, agrees Marc Brackett, Ph.D. He is the Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and another of Lily’s expert guests. He notes that expressing inner vulnerability is a crucial component of what makes Cornell Silver’s conversations impactful. The audience is watching her talk about her traumas and struggles in a relaxed setting, making it okay for them to have those same conversations.

The thing Brackett hopes her audience takes away from the series is the sense that they can define their reality. “You’re too fat, you’re too skinny, you’re too tall, you’re too short, you’re too dark, you’re too light. Unfortunately, when you’re told these things without any helpful intervention, you start believing them,” he says.

The key to kindly talking to others about mental health, he suggests, may lie in educating people, especially children, about the messages they’re getting.

“To me, that’s one of the number one strategies: monitoring your negative self news, monitoring your self-criticism, and finding a way to be empathic to yourself and more self-compassionate.”

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