James Wolf ’07 Turns Loss into Action

When James Wolf ’07 lost his close friend and bandmate to suicide in 2010, he decided to turn his feelings of sadness and helplessness into action. He and his fraternity brothers at Vanderbilt University launched A Celebration of Life: A Tribute to Kyle Craig, using their mutual love for music to organize concerts to benefit Minding Your Mind. Wolf, a senior analyst at Ernst & Young in New York, was recently awarded Minding Your Mind’s inaugural “Emerging Minds” award for successfully hosting the first annual A Celebration of Life: New York event in September.
Since 2011, the Vanderbilt concerts have raised nearly $100,000 for the non-profit, which sponsors programs in colleges and schools to help fight the stigma surrounding mental health issues. In addition, the NYC event alone raised $130,000 to support the non-profit’s activities in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut area. Wolf is one of a number of Rivers students, past and present, who have committed themselves to causes that have touched their lives in very personal ways, including raising awareness about cancer, diabetes, anaphylaxis, and autism.
“Kyle and I were in a band together,” said Wolf, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 2011 with a dual major in economics and Spanish. “The closest thing we shared was our passion for music and from the very beginning we knew we should honor him with a concert. Even if we didn’t raise that much money, our main goal was to put on a proper tribute for Kyle. We were extremely lucky to connect with Minding Your Mind and that the event became the success that is has. The fraternity continues to throw the event every year, with some auxiliary help from myself, other alumni, and Minding Your Mind. It is actually amazing to see college students—not always the most motivated—take such hold of the cause, not even having known Kyle.”
Minding Your Mind’s mission is to “reduce stigma and destructive behaviors associated with mental health issues while promoting help-seeking behavior in youths through education.” They offer free mental health education programs to middle school, high school, and college age students, as well as their teachers, parents, and caregivers. The goal of these programs is to normalize the conversation around mental health issues so that struggling students feel comfortable asking for help. Additionally, students learn to recognize warning signs and how to assist a friend in crisis. The programs focus on prevention through education rather than crisis-based response.
During the past five years, the money raised through the concerts at Vanderbilt has funded six different speakers—often young people suffering from mental illness— at the university and surrounding high schools to bring the issue of depression and mental health concerns into the open. The organization, based in Pennsylvania, now offers programs throughout the mid-Atlantic region, and as far away as Louisiana.
“We decided this year to host the NYC event because many who hold the event so close to our hearts, including Kyle’s friends and family from New Jersey, could not attend the Nashville concert each year,” said Wolf. “So New York was the best venue we could imagine. Furthermore, New York and the general work hard/play hard culture it promotes is a key demographic. I just wanted to help Minding Your Mind expand their presence. We created a 12-person committee, a mix of Vanderbilt alumni of all ages, Minding Your Mind speakers and employees, Kyle's friends, and his brother and sister. The guest list was comprised of everyone from co-workers to cousins. We were able to get more than 300 people to attend on a Wednesday night. We hope the success allows us more budget and space for next year!”
When asked if he feels people have become more open about the need to reach out to teenagers and young adults since he first became involved in 2011, Wolf responded, “Absolutely, 100%! Just from my blog post I received so many kind notes about how people could relate to it personally, and a few friends even opened up to me directly about their problems. And to see the immediate impact from the Minding Your Mind speakers is also inspiring. You don't expect them to get questions from kids at the end of their talks, but just from hearing someone open up so deeply to strangers makes the audience more comfortable talking about it. Also, the recent celebrity deaths (i.e., Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and college soccer player Madison Halloran) have helped shed light in a more public space. But we are not there yet. Not even close. The stigma is still very real but we won't stop fighting it!”
Minding Your Mind’s most recent campaign is called #BeTheOne, referring to the need to be the person who says something, who maybe saves a life—something Wolf has taken to heart.
“My key advice is TALK ABOUT IT,” says Wolf. “There is nothing wrong with saying ‘I'm depressed/upset/sad about ____.’ Even more so—something I hold very dearly as I did not have the courage to say it myself—to say ‘Hey, are you OK? Do you want to talk about it?’ when you notice a friend is clearly struggling. Be the person who’s not afraid to ask those questions and openly talk about your feelings with your friends and those around you. You can be the one to save a life, simply by having a conversation. There is no ‘stupid’ thing to be upset about either. No matter how trivial it is, you shouldn’t have to defend how you feel. Sometimes we have less control over this than we realize. Also, it is usually the person you least expect who needs your help the most. Many times it’s the ‘perfect kid’ or the ‘star athlete’ who has the biggest internal struggle. No one saw it coming from my friend, Kyle. So, please, be the one.”