Learn how to be your own best friend, cheerleader, and supporter. We’re taught to memorize the Pythagorean theorem in school, but not skills like how to identify our basic needs and meet them. Times will inevitably get rough so learning how to nurture and support yourself is invaluable.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sasha Raskin.
Sasha is the Founder of A BEAUTIFUL MESS (ABM), a mental health organization that runs corporate talks and events to combat loneliness, depression, and mental health stigma. Before that, she was a Hollywood literary agent representing dozens of bestsellers across the globe and even briefly ran a tech company, all the while struggling with debilitating depression, which eventually led to her hospitalization (you can read more about that here). She started ABM to be the resource she wished she had when she was struggling the most.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I was born in the former Soviet Union and my family and I came to the United States as refugees. An organization named HIAS enabled Soviet Jews fleeing persecution to get asylum in the US and we were one of the lucky families they helped. Our history informs a lot of what I do. I think I chose this field [mental health] — or rather it chose me — because it is a path towards ending the intergenerational cycle of trauma and abuse from which we come. My Jewish background has also instilled in me a sense of responsibility to stand up for the members of society that are most vulnerable.
Immigrant culture often takes a “get over it” approach towards mental health, which is not particularly sensitive or helpful to someone hurting. I didn’t feel very nurtured, supported, or understood in my struggles and that was very painful and lonely. I started my organization, A BEAUTIFUL MESS, to be the type of resource I wish I had in my times of need.
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
A BEAUTIFUL MESS (ABM) is a mental health organization that leads talks and workshops to combat loneliness, depression, and mental health stigma. These are some of the most intractable issues of our time. Over a third of the population suffers from depression/ suicidality, and over half struggle with severe loneliness, claiming to have one or few closer friends. COVID-19 is only pouring gasoline on this fire as these rates are climbing drastically.
I think about it like this: the world stopped in its tracks to address COVID-19. We’re long overdue in taking the mental health pandemic just as seriously and I aim to change that!
My goal is to end mental health stigma. To meet that goal, I am asking every major company to pledge to make mental health events a normal part of their work week by 2022. That would be such a powerful and revolutionary step — and the best part is, it is abundantly achievable. There is really no excuse or reason why this shouldn’t happen, so please, join forces with us!
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I founded A BEAUTIFUL MESS for deeply personal reasons. I spent most of my life as a high-functioning, high-achieving suicidal depressive. Like many people, you wouldn’t have known how much I struggled because my life looked great from the outside. I began college at the age of 16, graduated with honors from a top tier university (UC Berkeley), and went on to be a literary agent at one of the biggest agencies in the globe (United Talent Agency), working with everyone from celebrities to business moguls to Nobel prize-winning scientists. I even briefly became a tech executive and founder.
But I was quietly collapsing and finally had myself hospitalized a few years ago. I thought my life was over at that point; that no one would want to date me, love me, or even be my friend. I thought I’d have to keep it a secret. That’s when I knew I had to tell everyone because I didn’t want to leave a life of secrecy and shame, nor did I want to perpetuate the stigma that keeps mental illness in the dark. From that point forward, I shared my story, brutally and honestly, in hopes it might inspire others to get the help they needed.
That one decision changed everything. Sharing my story led to many people sharing their own, and most told me I was the only person they confided in because of the shame and pressure to remain silent. I decided that was unacceptable — that no one should live in fear of sharing the truth about themselves. Hence, A BEAUTIFUL MESS was borne in the hope that no one be alone in their darkest hour.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Like many of us, I thought highly “successful” people and CEO’s were fundamentally different than me; that they were better and brighter and had something I didn’t. The higher up I got in my own career, the more I realized the people running the ship were often no better or smarter than me. Sure, some people were much more brilliant, but more often than not, I found myself thinking “damn, that guy runs a company?!” Michelle Obama’s famously said, “I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of… They are not that smart.” My “aha moment” came when I realized just how much truth and wisdom there was to that statement!
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
My advice is less about steps and more about getting out of your own way and jumping in headfirst. The best decision I made was to start before I felt ready or prepared. I say that only because most of us never feel truly ready or prepared, so mostly these terms are used just to indefinitely delay embarking on our dreams. I am certain that if I had tried to get it “right” from the get-go, I never would have started.
It’s funny, one of the workshops I run is called “Make Bad Sh*t: Overcoming The Obstacles of Perfectionism” and I came up with it for precisely this reason! If I had mapped out all the steps, I would have gotten lost in my own head and never done it. I know because over the years I made list after list after list that went nowhere. The world needs your passion, fire, drive, determination, and heart more than it needs your meticulously laid out plans (which will end up changing a million times anyway).
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I LOVE this story and am so glad I get to share it. The workshops I run draw on several different disciplines centering on emotional literacy, one of which is called Authentic Relating and is commonly abbreviated as AR. I ran the event with a friend who used that abbreviation for the Facebook invite.
A friend of mine, Sam, ended up bringing several other men to the workshop with him. All of them had huge breakthroughs during the event, and one of the men even ended up sobbing in my arms for a long time. It was incredibly beautiful to see these men be so vulnerable, open, and brave.
Even though it was a long workshop (4 hours!), a lot of us were still buzzing afterwards and wanted to spend even more time together, so we went out for dinner. There, Sam and his friends admitted to me that they only came because they thought the workshop was on Augmented Reality (which makes perfect sense of course!) and that they wanted to leave when they realized what it actually was. They only stayed out of politeness, figuring they would bail at the first chance.
Meanwhile, they are the ones that benefited more than anyone. That’s usually the case, by the way! The people who don’t think they need this work are often the struggling the most. So they often have the biggest breakthroughs. We wouldn’t actually do this of course, but I joked with my friend that we should “false” advertise more so people who wouldn’t normally come could experience this important work!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
There are so many it’s hard to pick just one…but here goes. I was on a conference call, thinking I was muted when I got some good news and yelled “woohoo” super loudly. Of course, zoom highlighted me as main speaker because, well, I screamed.
Years ago, I would have berated myself, telling myself I was such an idiot, always making a fool of myself. Now I can laugh it off as a silly mistake, and one that maybe brought some people joy in the process because they got to have a good laugh at it too. This mistake was an opportunity to notice how far I’ve come in my journey — I’m nowhere near as cruel to myself anymore, thankfully!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Yes, and I feel SOOO lucky and blessed to have had them. One of my first college professors, Irini Rickerson, was the first adult outside of my grandmother with whom I felt really safe. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had very low self-esteem and was deeply self-loathing. I felt like an utterly different person around Irini, like someone flipped a switch that brought me alive.
We put so much emphasis on self-help, but sometimes it takes someone else seeing your potential for you to see it in yourself. Irini was that person who believed in me when I didn’t. Over a decade later, I still consider her my best friend. It soothes me just knowing someone like her is in my corner, always cheering me on and rooting for me.
She was also the first real activist I met, which inspired my own social justice awakening. She ran a Christmas benefit every year, and we used the proceeds to buy gifts for homeless shelter residents living with HIV/AIDS. We would deliver the presents and spent time with the residents, and time after time, this event was the highlight of my year.
My grandmother has passed now but she is also someone who helped me beyond measure. She was so grounded, calm, loving and nurturing; and that was a big contrast to what I was accustomed to. I had cancer when I was younger and felt particularly hideous, having had lost my hair and gained a lot of weight from the steroids that were a part of my treatment. People looked at me so differently, with such pity and shock. We hid it from my grandmother because she and I were so close, we worried how she’d take the news. My first visit while sick, she told me how beautiful I was; that I had finally filled out and looked like a real woman. My family and I all had a good laugh that we could count on grandma to appreciate my new full figure!
I hate to make this even longer but it’s rare to get the opportunity to so publicly acknowledge the people who help you along the way, and it’s so important to! So I’d love to include: My family; Serafina, Ed, Max, Eli, Irene, Vladimir, Gala, Misha and Stewart Raskin; David Goldstein; Ira and James Roiz; Eleanor Chandler; Karan Godhawk; Cristin Lafata; Grace Choe; Dima Kopelevich; Akhila Raju; Ori Samuel; Anna Kate; Phil Enock; and Rebecca Grossman. I love you all very much!
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I threw a surprise love-bombing event for someone who really struggling and feeling uncared for and unloved. I could relate and didn’t want her to go through the same thing I had, so I planned the event — something I always wished someone had done for me. She’s a musician, so I said I was hosting a musical showcase and asked her to participate. After she played, I revealed that it was actually a surprise love-bombing party and if she was ok with it, we’d love to share things we appreciate about her. She was very much ok with it!
What ensured was one of the warmest, most beautiful, and heartfelt events I could have imagined. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house by the time it was over because the love in the space was just that palpable and sincere. She had this to say afterwards:
“I appreciate everyone that took time to listen and show some love …It means the world to me since I’m not a very popular person and have a history of being the odd ball in a group. [But this] made me feel a good, positive way about myself I usually don’t feel.
I usually feel alone and withdrawn. A feeling I endured from probably adolescence. But this almost made me feel as though the void from the years of isolation and ostracization was filled. This meant so much to me. I’m truly moved by this. I loved it I couldn’t feel any [more] loved and appreciated and I truly am grateful for what you did. Thanks a ton!”
Just a little bit of love and affection goes such a long way, and yet so few of us get anywhere near enough for our cup to be full. Every one of us has the power to change that for someone right now, if we would only just do it!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Pay us for our work! It’s critical to financially support the causes you care about! Our work is very time and labor intensive and we are too often asked to work or speak for free. Hire us, donate your services, or sponsor us! This is probably the biggest way you can help.
Help us spread the word about the work we are doing. Give us platforms to speak! TV shows, covers, articles, etc. This feature is so great for that reason as it helps spread awareness. The amount we can accomplish is directly related to our ability to get the word out.
My goal is that by 2022, every major company will have mental health events built in as a regular part of their workweek. Partner with me on this pledge, invite your company to sign it, and enroll others as well!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Learn how to be your own best friend, cheerleader, and supporter. We’re taught to memorize the Pythagorean theorem in school, but not skills like how to identify our basic needs and meet them. Times will inevitably get rough so learning how to nurture and support yourself is invaluable.
- I can’t underscore enough the old adage that the perfect is the enemy of the good! You’ll probably never feel ready so just do it anyway. The more you try to get it done right or well, the more likely you’ll never get it done at all and the sooner you realize that, the better.
- Develop a growth vs. a fixed mindset — it’s a game changer. We too often think of ourselves in rigid terms. Sure, we have strengths and weaknesses but a lot of our sense of identity is false, especially since our identities are ever evolving. Just because you can’t do it today, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to tomorrow, or the next day.
- You will think you need more “discipline” and “tough love”, when chances are it’s the opposite — that you need to learn to be kinder, gentler and more forgiving of yourself.
- You are not your resume! Or your accomplishments, successes, or failures. You are more than any of that. Your life has value no matter what you do or don’t accomplish. Not taking yourself too seriously and having fun along the way helps cultivate this mindset!
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would tell them how joyous it is to do meaningful work that makes an impact! I think we place emphasis on why we “should” do this work, and there is a moral imperative for sure, but we often gloss over how invigorating it is to do what makes your heart sing!
I used to have a fancy job as an agent in Hollywood where I could go to red carpet premiers and meet celebrities. There were cool perks, but I felt empty and hollow. Finding my purpose and doing this work has given me a new lease on life. So many people are depressed these days and feel a general sense of malaise — I think that has a lot to do with not having meaningful relationships, purpose, and impact. Doing something for others is ultimately doing something for yourself because there is nothing more nourishing for your soul.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Pick just one?! Yikes that’s hard… I normally don’t celebrity fan girl but if I had to pick just one right now, it’d be Jameela Jamil because she is so much more than a “celebrity.” She is so thoughtful, bold, articulate, and outspoken. She challenges the ideas of what women are supposed to say and do and she looks like she’s having a blast in the process! Working with her on mental health would be so impactful, and I feel like we’d have so much fun doing it!
I’m sorry but it’s too impossible not to sneak in other top wishes so a shout out to other dream lunch dates: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Stacey Abrams, Brene Brown and Elizabeth
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If you’re reading this, I hope we get to connect!
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
I, in turn, would like to sincerely thank you! The coverage you’re providing is what enables us to make the change that is needed in the world!