An Interview with Renee Wilk, Executive Director of The Quell Foundation

The mission of The Quell Foundation is clear: to reduce the number of suicides and overdoses, and the incarceration of people with a mental health illness. The Foundation works to accomplish this by encouraging people to share their stories, increasing access to mental health services, providing a pipeline of future mental health care professionals with scholarships, and training first responders to recognize mental health deterioration warning signs among their own group. Their approach is threefold: awareness, access, and training.

“About 44 million Americans are diagnosed with a mental health disorder,” says Renee Wilk, executive director. “That’s about one in five adults. But the data may not even be complete, when we think of the many undiagnosed cases. If we’re going to make any progress in mental health, we need an integrative approach.”

Start the Conversation

Renee Wilk, executive director, The Quell Foundation

One in five adults seems like a lot, and it is. So why don’t we hear more about this statistic? “Things often happen in silence,” Wilk continues. “There is fear of judgment, but I’m encouraged by how open people are willing to be with their own experiences, when they know they are in a judgment-free space. Sometimes just asking the question ‘Are you okay?’ and truly meaning it can open up a lot of doors.”

One way The Quell Foundation is tackling the stigma is through effective storytelling. In an effort to normalize the conversation of mental health illness, their media partners have traveled across the country gathering profiles for a documentary that offers hope to others but also “shines a light on how difficult it is to find and get access to the right care.”

The documentary will be available to the public in early 2018 and the Foundation is already working with their scholarship recipients and partner schools, like the University of Minnesota, to schedule showings on campuses across the country.

“Offer yourself as a listener and... let people know they are not alone.”

In addition, they host a masquerade ball every year that highlights individual success stories. Headquartered in Massachusetts, they also have a presence at the Boston Marathon and the Falmouth Road Race.

But, Wilk says, everyone can be an advocate in their everyday lives. “Normalize the conversation around mental health. When we allow for open dialogue about an illness, which no one chooses to have, we begin to lift the mask and remove the stigma... Just be open in your own community; start with your family and friends. Offer yourself as a listener and, perhaps most importantly, let people know they are not alone. Everyone knows someone."

Provide Opportunities

The Quell Foundation is committed to increasing the talent pipeline through education. They offer three scholarships: Fighter, Survivor, and Bridge the Gap. The Fighter Scholarship is awarded to students with a diagnosed mental health condition; the Survivor Scholarship is for undergraduates who have experienced a loss of a family member to suicide; and the Bridge the Gap Scholarship is awarded to students pursuing a degree in the mental health arena.

Wilk says they want to provide more than just financial support to the recipients. “We’re connecting with our corporate sponsors and loyal donors to offer other resources such as teletherapy, career internships, mentoring, and even providing platforms for our students to serve on panel discussions. We’re essentially creating an alumni network of scholarship recipients in an effort to keep the conversation going after graduation.”

“Everyone knows someone.”

Even if a Fighter or Survivor student chooses not to go into a mental health specialty, Quell wants to support these motivated students who share a mutual passion for lifting the mask and shattering the stigma of mental health illness. “Our job is to empower them.”

Recently, three full-time Master of Professional Studies in Integrated Behavioral Health students were awarded the Bridge the Gap scholarship: Toby Dennert, Sara Najm, and Brianna Ripoli. Wilk believes that the IBH program can help fulfill the growing need for skilled practitioners.

“The IBH program is great because it recognizes the health beyond traditional practices. Over 10 million adults in America are diagnosed with a mental health disorder and also suffer from addiction. It’s all tied together.”

Maintain Momentum

Quell wants to ensure that the right people have the right training and access to necessary resources. First responders, especially, are in a unique position. Wilk explains: “The objective is to empower first responders to identify, intervene, and respond to a mental health crisis within their own ranks. This population of public servants, now more than ever, is subjected to vicarious trauma. These are the men and women responding to unprecedented rates of suicide, overdoses, and mass shootings.”

Three stacked stones

Institutional paranoia plays a role. There may be a perceived weakness or repercussions in asking for help. Even if a department has a robust counseling program in place, when you dig deeper, those first responders may still be “struggling internally and are afraid to talk about it. First responders have the sixth-highest suicide rate by occupation. (Quell) is committed to helping this high-risk population.”

Wilk says she hopes that we can all eventually talk about mental illness “as though it were any other disease, like cancer or diabetes.”

Like cancer or diabetes, the reach of mental illness is expansive. Many of us know someone who suffers from anxiety, depression, addiction, PTSD, or some combination thereof. Activism, however, can manifest itself through small demonstrations of support.

As Quell Foundation CEO Kevin M. Lynch asked in his commencement address at Pennsylvania State University, “If you had a friend, relative, or a loved one that could not see the light at the end of the tunnel, would you go sit with them in the dark?”

Find out more about The Quell Foundation and scholarship opportunities.