Guest post by Bernice Pescosolido.
Just last Thursday night, Zak Williams stood at the podium of a comedy club in San Francisco with his brother Cody and his wife, talking about the importance of laughter to mental health. And who would know better than Zak, the first son of comedian Robin Williams, the brilliant, zany, quiet, humble comedic genius that lost his struggles with mental illness a few years earlier. The world is a sadder place as a result, but his influence lives on, not only through his son who has that same wonderful glint in his eyes, but through his family’s participation, each year, in Bring Change to Mind’s Legacy of Laughter Award. This award, given annually at BC2M’s yearly gala, celebrates those, who like Robin Williams, not only understood the power of laughter to heal but also understood the challenges that mental illness brings to individuals, to families, to society, and in the end, to us all.
That particular night in San Francisco, the award went to Ben Stiller, the next generation of comedians who, like Robin Williams, uses the power that they hold to bring joy into our lives, to use laughter to address serious subjects that too often others are afraid to mention, and to use their celebrity to do good in the world. Past winners have been Billy Crystal and “our own” Whoopi Goldberg, both who hosted Comic Relief with Robin Williams several times to raise money for problems related to poverty, particularly homelessness. I say “our own” Whoopi because, she too, came under the aegis of U Bring Change to Mind, to the IU campus to support U Bring Change 2 Mind, our student club targeting making campuses “safe and stigma free” zones. She made a detour from another engagement to stop by Bloomington to talk about issues of mental health; other societal problems and opportunities; her friendship with Glenn Close, who accompanied her here; and the often neglected topic of race and mental health.
The Legacy of Laughter Award is a wonderful tribute to well-known people who are devoted to important but stigmatized causes during an evening that is fun, uplifting and solemn all at the same time. But, to me, that does not matter as much as the fact that Zak is there every year at the Bring Change to Mind gala, with his family, to honor his father’s legacy as an enormous talent, a generous human being, and as a stunning reminder of the contributions that people with mental health struggles can and do make every day. What Glenn, Whoopi and now Zak have done for IU, they do for nothing — nothing in the sense that they ask for no payment. That is because what they “do” for BC2M, UBC2M and for IU is everything – they have fueled a revolution in changing the discussions around mental health from a “disease like any other” trope to a vibrant call to “start the conversation” and share stories of how mental illness has touched their lives and the lives of everyday people.
I have come to know Zak because we both serve on BC2M’s Board. The energy he brings to BC2M’s Board Meetings is infectious. His ideas are bold, unique and forward-thinking. They are as interesting as they are backed up by serious financial considerations and business expertise that he brings to discussions. And, yes, he is fun to be around. I hope you will join us on Friday night to celebrate Robin Williams by seeing Come Inside My Mind and seizing the opportunity to hear and talk to this incredible man who carries on his father’s philanthropic legacy in what little spare time he has as an entrepreneur, husband and new father. Zak is forging his own path, building companies with his MBA from Columbia University in hand and lending insights into the new wave of philanthropy. At the same time, he has managed to be a genuinely lovely human being. I cannot thank him enough for squeezing out the time to join us at the IU Cinema to celebrate his own efforts and his father’s life.
This screening is supported by IU Cinema, U Bring Change to Mind, Kelley School of Business, and Balance at Kelley through the Cinema’s Creative Collaborations program.
Bernice Pescosolido is Distinguished and Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology at Indiana University and Founding Director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research (ICMHSR). She works closely with mental health advocacy organizations such as Bring Change to Mind, serving as Chair of its Scientific Advisory Council, to use research to foster public awareness and improve public policy and decision-making regarding these devastating illnesses.