*Originally published in Authority Magazine
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Art Pharmacy Founder & CEO Chris Appleton.
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 about how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Atlanta to incredible parents and role models. I remain close with my parents along with my younger brother who all live in Atlanta. I had a wonderful childhood and loved school, sports and the arts. Service and servant leadership were also instilled in me throughout my childhood. Both of my grandfathers were entrepreneurs, so I always looked up to their creativity and innovative nature. Specifically, my mother’s father was involved in civic leadership in Western North Carolina where he set a great example for me and the rest of our family.
You are currently leading an initiative that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit more specifically about what you are trying to address?
As the U.S. Surgeon General highlighted earlier this year, there is a social isolation and loneliness epidemic in the United States, with adolescents and older adults impacted especially hard. Through technology and human-powered engagements, Art Pharmacy connects individuals with a range of mental health concerns to arts & culture experiences in their communities with protective and therapeutic benefits to well-being.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Art Pharmacy is working at the intersection of two areas that have long been of personal interest.
I have had the great fortune of working as an entrepreneur for my entire adult life. When in college, some friends and I started an organization that I went on to lead for 15 years. The organization was focused on integrating the arts into other parts of civic life. Through that work, I saw the power of creativity to move the needle for both social and business purposes.
Personally, I have had my own struggles with mental health issues, especially as a teenager and young adult. The arts have played a significant role in my journey to improve and manage my own mental health and emotional well-being. Whether attending a play by one of our Art Pharmacy or taking a museum visit with my children, I make a point to engage with arts & culture outside of my professional life.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. 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?
I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire career. As most entrepreneurs say, it’s a bug that doesn’t go away.
I am energized by turning the seed of an idea into a successful business that improves people’s lives. Amidst both personal and community struggles in early 2020, I began reading studies produced by the well-established arts & health research field. When I was introduced to the concept of social prescribing, it seemed like the proper delivery vehicle for arts-based mental health interventions and programs in the US.
From there, I saw an opportunity to build upon the research that clearly shows arts engagement can improve health outcomes. In order to scale that into the U.S. health system with health systems and insurance companies, Art Pharmacy was established.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Recently Art Pharmacy was approached by a diabetes and prevention program with an interest in incorporating Art Pharmacy’s solution as an adherence intervention for the 120,000 patients in its program. While we were established to provide mental health interventions, we learned that our solution can also improve chronic disease and other health concerns. This opportunity led us to review our approach overall and expand our solution beyond mental health patients only.
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?
Certainly, my family has had a great influence. My wife, Annie, has changed the trajectory of my life and my career in the most wonderful ways. I’ve been fortunate to have mentors, professionally and personally. In fact, some of my best mentors are close friends. Not only do peer mentors help to improve my likelihood of success professionally, but they make me a more compassionate and empathetic person.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
Unfortunately, I think one of the reasons there is still so much stigma around mental illness is the societal pressure for men to be stoic or unemotional in the face of challenges — or even successes. Steadiness can be a great attribute in many ways. However, that steadfastness should not be at the expense of being in touch with one’s feelings and the impact of hardship on our lives. In our family lives, social lives, and professional lives, we need to do more toward destigmatizing mental health and mental illness. The purpose here isn’t to blame but instead, I see an opportunity for growth. We are all shaped by the culture in which we live, and unfortunately, many of us have been shaped by these cultural norms. I hope the tide is turning for men to embrace themselves and encourage others to be more vulnerable.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Just today, I read an article about how the CEO of a Fortune 500 company was having to choose between empathy toward his workforce and business efficiency due to economic pressures. I’ve been guilty of this false dichotomy myself but have come to believe that the two are mutually reinforcing.
The healthcare system needs greater parody between physician healthcare coverage and mental health coverage by health plans. We need higher reimbursement rates for mental health services, especially by public payers such as Medicare and Medicaid. Without these systematic changes throughout the healthcare industry, these mental health offerings are not offered as an equitable treatment to all populations and individuals.
What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own well-being and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
A consistent, quality night’s sleep is step one. Not always easy to do but turn off the screen and go to bed early enough. Oh, and make the bed in the morning.
Regular exercise has been so critical to my mental health over the last several years. I’m a long-distance runner. Getting in the miles, especially with friends, is the best way to start my day.
Speaking of friends, being engaged in community with others is an important ingredient to my overall well-being. As I shared, the U.S. Surgeon General is doing a lot to elevate the importance of belonging and social connection for our health. My favorite way to be in community is through service and through hosting dinner parties.
I am very conscious of what I put in my body. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a long list of sweets because I definitely do, but there is a direct correlation between the quality of what I eat and my mental health. For me, no alcohol; lots of fruits and veggies; and the occasional milkshake.
And as I shared before, engaging in the arts has consistently been a means of self-reflection and shared experience for the past 25 years of my life.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
I really delved into mental health arts & health research a couple of years ago, which inspired me to start Art Pharmacy. I still spend a lot of time reading about the intersection of arts & health. As far as a specific resource that inspires me, Dr. Ben Miller is a great industry expert that is really focused on community-based care. The work coming out of the Arts & Minds Lab at Johns Hopkins is particularly inspiring. I’m also a big fan of the work happening at the National Organization for Arts and Health and the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness. Personally, I enjoy the “SmartLess” podcast with Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, & Will Arnett. It’s much lighter but brings me joy and lots of laughter.
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Neuroscience research shows that when we help others, we experience a greater sense of purpose, belonging and joy in our own lives. Find something for which you have a passion and spend time working on it with kindness and compassion.
How can our readers follow you online?
Our readers can stay updated about Art Pharmacy by following us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.
Receive updates on the latest developments at Art Pharmacy and our research.