By Janeece Woodson, Staff Writer
Renee Yohe was a 19 year-old with a cocaine habit, a history of abuse, and patterns of self-harm and depression; Jamie Tworkowski learned of the depth of her battles when they spent five colorful days together. Renee’s five days with Jamie ended when she entered a rehabilitation center, ready to begin the process of healing. He wrote a short story about the experience, called “To Write Love on Her Arms.” Ten years later, the title of the story is also the name of a thriving nonprofit organization meant to promote awareness about mental health issues and addiction, known colloquially as TWLOHA. The aims of this group have spread to St. Louis, as a University of Missouri—St. Louis student has begun a chapter of her own on campus.
Katelynn Armstrong, junior, psychology and graphic design, first discovered TWLOHA in high school. During her senior year, she was involved in Oakville High School’s “The Storytellers” campaign, an offshoot of the main organization that aimed to help high schoolers specifically. “Everyone of all ages deals with this,” she said. “That’s why it’s important for TWLOHA to have a presence everywhere.” She attended a national conference in Florida in 2014, then she completed a written and video application process. Next, her training in being a leader in the organization began. “You need to know what you’re talking about, with a subject like this” Armstrong said.
Many TWLOHA chapters host memorable events that promote options for those who deal with issues such as depression, anxiety, substance addiction, self-harm, and more. Often, the chapters will raise money by selling TWLOHA gear; that money goes to the main organization and is used for national awareness campaigns, education of the general public, and rehabilitation for those who cannot afford it. The first move for beginning the chapter was to organize an executive board, which currently consists of a Student Government Association representative, a vice president, and a treasurer. Armstrong’s chapter is also partnering with UMSL’s Counseling Services. “If we didn’t have the counseling center, a lot of people would have no place to go,” Armstrong said.
As president and founder, Armstrong’s next plan is to bring a great deal of awareness to campus during National Suicide Prevention Month, which is in September every year. She hopes that an impactful and well-planned way of having a conversation about suicide will help the many people who are uncomfortable talking about the topic. “These are hard topics to listen to and be comfortable,” she said, “If we can just meet them somewhere in between, I think we can help.” One idea for the events in September is a visual, emotional way of presenting a daunting statistic. TWLOHA hopes to place one small metallic flag for every hundred suicides per year in an empty space on campus. The flags will carry small messages of hope and love that students have offered in support of those who struggle with suicidal thoughts.
After introducing TWLOHA to campus through a meeting, in which many Counseling Services staff were present, Armstrong feels emboldened by the reactions. “So far it’s been a really good response; some people come up and ask what this is and seem really glad when they find out our goals, and some say ‘I know what this is, thank you for bringing it here.’”
Armstrong approaches the ideas of the chapter with a sense of urgency. During an interview, she said, “Look around this room. One in three [four] people experiences some kind of mental illness… putting a face to those numbers makes it real.” As someone who experienced the loss of a family member to suicide last year, Armstrong is extraordinarily passionate about educating the people around her. She hopes that the chapter will serve as a bridge between students, their friends, family, and professionals who can help them turn things around. The chapter plans to hold educational meetings and many awareness campaigns throughout the coming months.
After training with the nonprofit organization, Armstrong would like to stress that TWLOHA is not a support group or a type of treatment for mental health struggles. Instead, the chapter is a non-judgmental, creative, and supportive space that aims to give hope to people who might not otherwise find it. The chapter can make referrals to Counseling Services and other professional resources. “Regardless of what you’re struggling with, you’re important and your story’s important,” Armstrong said. “Maybe this weird name that sounds like a band will stick with someone who needs it.”
For more information about Renee’s story or how to be involved, visit twloha.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.