When Cynthia Germanotta discusses how complicated and misunderstood mental illness can be, she speaks from a place of knowing because her family has lived the reality. Germanotta is the mother of two daughters, the oldest of which, Stefani — better known as Oscar and Grammy Award-winning artist Lady Gaga — is open about her struggles with posttraumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
“My husband and I tried our best (and still do!) to be deeply loving and attentive parents, who made sure we had regular family dinners and spent hours talking with our children. But, for all of that communication, we still didn’t really understand exactly what they needed sometimes,” Germanotta wrote in a candid essay last year. “Like many parents, I didn’t know the difference between normal adolescent development and a mental health issue that needed to be addressed, not just waited out. I mistook the depression and anxiety my children were experiencing for the average, if unpleasant, moodiness we all associate with teenagers.”
Together, Germanotta and Lady Gaga work to combat the stigma and misunderstanding that often surround mental health issues through the Born This Way Foundation, a nonprofit they co-founded in 2012. Germanotta will speak about mental health and the work of the foundation during her keynote address at the American Counseling Association’s 2019 Conference & Expo in New Orleans later this month.
Through research and youth-focused outreach programs, the Born This Way Foundation works to disseminate information and resources about mental health and help-seeking. Its mission is to “support the wellness of young people and empower them to create a kinder and braver world.”
Counselors, Germanotta asserts, have an important role to play in achieving that goal. She recently shared her thoughts in an email interview with CT Online.
Q+A: Cynthia Germanotta, president of the Born This Way Foundation
Part of the mission of your foundation is to empower young people to “create a kinder and braver world.” From your perspective, what part do professional counselors have to play in that mission? What do you want them to know?
Building a kinder, braver world takes everyone — including (and especially) counselors. As adults who care about and work with young people, counselors can and do help young people understand how to be kind to themselves, how to cope with the challenges that life will throw their way, and how to take care of their own well-being while they’re busy changing the world.
To us, being brave isn’t something you just have the will to do; it’s something you have to learn how to do and be taught the skills for, and counselors can help young people do that. Counselors are a vital part of the support system that we need to foster for young people so that they are able to lead healthy lives themselves and to build the communities they hope to live and thrive in.
What would you share with counselors — from the perspective of a nonpractitioner — about making the decision to seek help for mental health issues or helping a loved one make that decision? How can a practitioner support parents and families in making that decision easier and less associated with shame or stigma?
When you’re struggling with your mental health, asking for help is one of the toughest, bravest and kindest things you can do and, for so many, shame and stigma make these conversations even harder. If that’s going to change (and my team works every day to ensure that it does) we have to normalize discussions of mental health, turning it from something that’s only talked about in moments of crisis to just another regular topic of conversation.
Practitioners can help the people they work with, and their loved ones, learn strategies for talking about mental health, equipping them with the skills they need to communicate about an important part of their lives.
What motivated you to accept this speaking engagement to address thousands of professional counselors?
My daughter would be the first one to say, we can’t do this work alone. Fostering the wellness of young people takes all of us working together.
Counselors are such a crucial part of the fabric that surrounds and supports young people, so I was honored to be invited to speak to the American Counseling Association and have the opportunity to not only share our work at Born This Way Foundation, but to hear from (and learn from) this amazing group of practitioners.
What can American Counseling Association members expect from your keynote? What might you talk about?
I’m so looking forward to sharing a bit about Born This Way Foundation — why my daughter and I decided to found it, what our mission is and how we’re working toward our goal of building a kinder and braver world, including a couple of new programs we’ve excited to be working on this year.
I’m also excited to share what we’re hearing from young people themselves about mental health. We invest heavily in listening to youth in formal and informal situations, in person, online and through our extensive research. We’ve learned so much through this process, and we have some important insights we’re looking forward to sharing, including the results of our latest round of research where we collected data from more than 2,000 youth about how they perceive their own mental wellness [and] their access to key resources.
How have you seen the mental health landscape in the U.S. change since you started the Born This Way Foundation in 2012? Are things changing for the better?
Over the past seven years, we’ve seen real momentum around both the willingness to discuss mental health and the urgency of the challenges that so many young people face. We certainly have a long way to go, but I truly believe we’re starting to move the needle.
There are so many examples of the progress being made on mental health — public figures starting to talk about it, global advocates organizing around it, governments starting to invest in it, schools starting to prioritize it, and so much more.
And, as always, I’m inspired by young people who are so much further ahead on this issue than I think we sometimes give them credit for. In the research we’ve done, about 9 out of 10 young people have consistently said mental health is an important priority. There’s still work to do, but that’s a great foundation to build on.
After seven years of working on mental health and the foundation’s youth-focused initiatives, what gives you hope?
Young people give me hope. The youth that we have had the privilege to meet and work with throughout the years are so inspiring, demonstrating time and time again just how innovative, brave and resilient they are.
Young people already recognize mental health as a priority and have the desire and determination to change how society views and treats this fundamental part of our lives. Their bravery and enthusiasm make me excited for the future they will build, and [we are] committed to fostering their leadership and well-being.
Hear Cynthia Germanotta’s keynote talk Friday, March 29, at 9 a.m. at the 2019 ACA Conference & Expo in New Orleans. Find out more at counseling.org/conference.
Find out more about the Born This Way Foundation at bornthisway.foundation
In her own words
Read more about Germanotta’s perspective and experience through two articles she has written:
- “Lady Gaga’s Mom: What My Daughter Taught Me About Anxiety & Depression” (Refinery29)
- “When I Realized I Needed to Change the Way I Talk to My Daughters About Mental Health” (The Mighty)
Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.