In a special “Reverse” Lunch with Mimi, Marisa Vicere, president and founder of Jana Marie Foundation, sat down with Mimi Barash Coppersmith, founder of Town&Gown, for Suicide Prevention Month.
Working to end the silence that often surrounds mental and emotional health, the Jana Marie Foundation harnesses the power of creative expression and dialogue to spark conversations, build connections, and promote mental well-being among young people and their communities.
During this conversation, Mimi opens up about her journey of mental health, her ability to overcome hardships, and lessons learned from the loss of her sister.
If you or someone you know is having a mental health concern or crisis, reach out to Centre County Crisis at 1-800-643-5432 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Marisa: I am so honored to be able to sit down with you for this interview. As you know, at Jana Marie Foundation when we first got running, you were such a huge mentor, and you still are.
Mimi: Well, we’re all on this earth for a reason. And mostly it’s to love others. So I love your courage and spirit with what you’re doing. I’ve always admired it.
Marisa: I appreciate that. We’re doing this for September, which is Suicide Prevention Month. I know one of the things that you’ve been really open about is discussing mental health and well-being in lots of different ways, including in your book, Eat First, Cry Later. Why do you think it is so important to have open and honest conversations around mental health?
Mimi: I have to begin by saying, I grew up in a home where speaking about mental health was a no-no. But I’ve always had a theory – and my mother said it first to me: Better out than in. And in most of my lifetime, I’ve been quite outspoken, sometimes improperly in the minds of other people. But I believe in myself; you have to believe in yourself to be able to believe in others and to be able to transfer positive air and advice to other people, because that’s how you learn.
So, in our house people were crazy if they needed mental attention. However, I’m from a household were not all that far away from things, my parents outlived two of their children. The first one to go was my 20-year-old brother, who was killed in World War II. Years later, my 53-year-old sister committed suicide. Those two events had an incredible impact on my own life. I was a little girl – I was more of a grown girl when my sister died – but it causes you to take inventory of yourself.
I’ve also lived with depression and anxiety on and off in my lifetime. And of course, it came to a boil when I caught my third husband cheating on me. I almost lost it then. I feel that’s the event that really helped me grow up. Better out than in. In the end, I was so mean to him; I told him, ‘If you don’t leave, I’ll probably kill you with my voice, with my words. You’ve disappointed me beyond my ability to forgive you, and please leave.’ And that took a lot of bravery.
But in that same incident, I also came closer to doing what my older sister did than I like to speak about out loud, but I do speak about it. Because one should be able to share with others who might be able to help them. That’s why we’re all here. And I repeat, we’re all here to help one another; we achieve because we help other people achieve. We’re happy because we help other people be happy. I’m here to spread what has helped me overcome lots of setbacks, from financial to social to family, but there are solutions and you have to believe in yourself so you can get a solution.
Marisa: What are some of those different things that have helped you with overcoming adversity?
Mimi: People often ask me, “What do you credit your success to?” And I always answer the same way: Fear of failure. My father said to me, “You can do anything you choose to do.” And my mother said all the time, “You do well, but you can always do better.” So, I have always had this hesitation of just melting down. I deny myself the pleasure of watching Netflix too often, because I believe I should be doing something “more constructive.” I consider that a fault. I’m working on it. But I think it partly describes what makes me run.
I have a desire to make a difference, to leave a legacy, to be someone that’s remembered as an individual who did something to make Happy Valley happier and, particularly now in my aging years, to do a better job of being a mother and a grandmother. I’ve worked all my life. And I still work and I love work. And I love my family. But I’ve really never taken enough time to stop and do as much as I should. So it’s a high priority now of remembering to give your children and grandchildren the encouragement they need to develop who they really can be.
And it’s a little different for me because before I began this interview with you, I was busy selling Town&Gown advertising in a marketplace that needs me to help. I even closed a contract, so I come to this meeting in a good mood that you can do it, even when things are set up to be pretty much against you. There are a lot of businesses that are having huge struggles; whether they’ll survive this is an interesting question. But we all have a responsibility to find the good reasons why life must go on. We owe it not just to ourselves, but we especially now need it for all the people around us. And at 87, I’m still “a working woman,” because I have something to contribute to that belief.
Marisa: You continue to contribute so much to our community. Thank you for still sharing and bringing all of us with you on your journey. So we’re talking about this working mindset. What do for do your own mental wellness? How do you take breaks and how do you find time to relax, balancing all that you do still?
Mimi: I find thinking of new ideas relaxation. I believe there’s an answer to every question. Some are very difficult to find. But there is an answer to everything, even the most difficult things.
The real challenge for everyone is not to complain, but to figure out what’s good about this. I am writing more personal letters by hand; I am writing more letters to friends past and present, to people who do nice things in the community and for me, and I am getting treasured responses. … Happiness doesn’t come to you, you have to help create it.
But I also sulk; sometimes during this period I feel very forlorn, and I have to quietly talk to myself that this too will pass. I hate to be alone. I was from a family of five kids. We had a ton of relatives. What I dislike most is eating alone, because eating used to be family time. Our dining room here (at the Village at Penn State) is open now for 20 people, three or four sittings. That helps. I love meal time. Always have, because I wasn’t at work. I wasn’t a good cook. So we ordered out a lot. But it was family time. And it was friend time.
Marisa: Jana Marie Foundation is doing so many programs right now with young people in middle school and high school. We did the top 10 things that we are most thankful for from this pandemic. Number one on that list was being able to sit down with their family over mealtime. Our young people are looking for that same type of thing, which is that connection.
You’ve talked about the importance of connections and relationships in your life as you’ve gotten through some of the most difficult times. How have connections helped shape you and how have relationships helped you through?
Mimi: Life is relationships. It starts with your family. But the relationships that I have developed over my lifetime deserve the credit for a high percentage of the success that I have had in my life. They’ve turned me on, they’ve taught me, they’ve encouraged me, they’ve sympathized with me. They have taken me out of terrible periods of my life.
When my first husband was sick – and this was when we were young – this community pulled our whole family through the loss of Sy Barash. The people who owned Claster’s flew us to New York every time we needed to go to Sloan Kettering. There was such an outpouring of support. This was back in the early ’70s when we were still getting on our feet, really. I’m where I am and who I am because I have had the good fortune of relationships and a community that is full of love, helpfulness, and kindness.
Marisa: You have had the pleasure of having so many conversations with all sorts of individuals. And one of the things that you said at the beginning when we sat down was that talking about mental health was often met with silence within your own household. And that’s not uncommon. We’ve often seen that silence has surrounded the topic of mental health, mental illness, and suicide. How have you seen the conversations change over the years?
Mimi: You go to a dentist, and now going to a therapist is just another part of your health. To some, it’s still frightening. But I enjoy saying that I go to my therapist once a month, just to check the air in my tires. If you do it with your car, you might as well do it for yourself. I’m proud of it and it’s one of the major things that has helped me stay the course. Every time I feel one of the hints that anxiety or depression is knocking on my door, I sit back and think about the next time I’m going to talk to my therapist. The other thing that I use is the Calm app on the internet, which helps me get to sleep every night and starts me out every day with meditation.
Marisa: What do you feel is the most powerful quality any young person should possess in order to fully embrace who they truly are?
Mimi: Be yourself. You can be yourself. I have been able to live a life where I can speak my mind. Some people like it, some people don’t. But believe in yourself first. Believe what’s important to you and the world around you, and believe that you can do something to make it more real.
It would be easy for me not to bring up politics with whoever I sit down with at my new home at the Village at Penn State. It’s supposed to be a no- no. I feel so strongly about the absence of leadership in this country that I bring it up all the time, because I believe we should all be concerned about the future for our families. … I think the only way I can be a part of trying to fix things is to talk about it together without getting angry, but helping both sides to understand how we march together for the right purpose, not divisively. And that’s not an easy thing.
Marisa: How do we help people find that common ground and come together, rather than feel like they’re at opposite ends and can’t get along if they don’t see that same viewpoint?
Mimi: At first you have to believe in what you’re trying to get done. You have to believe it can get done. And then you get all sorts of people sitting around tables, talking about it. Because it’s everybody’s concern.
Marisa: What helped you along the way with finding your voice and using it to advocate for what you believe in and for standing up for the injustices of the world?
Mimi: I learned I could make a difference. And I feel good when I make a difference. People say to me when I speak about certain things, “Why don’t you tell me exactly how you feel?” Because I don’t hide the way I feel.
Life is an unending period of self-education, self-improvement, doing what you know will help others. I am so motivated to become involved, where I can make a difference in the lives of other people. My bottom line is, I’ve been very lucky. At the end of the day, I’m able to live the life I always loved to live at age 87, in an environment where I’m welcome and happy. That should be available for everybody who’s walking today.
Marisa: Just coming back to Suicide Prevention Month, I know we both had experience of losing a sister to suicide. How has it affected you and your outlook on life?
Mimi: I appreciate life so much. I’ve lost so many loved ones, including two absolutely wonderful husbands. I learned from them; they made me a better person. I feel that I’m still here for a reason. I’m from a family that doesn’t have long lives. But I believe I’m here for a reason. And each day that I get, I get for a reason. And I try to dress like it’s the last day or the first day of my life. I want to look good, and I want to feel good and that’s how it starts. And I believe, as my father said, that I can do almost anything I decide to do if I put my mind to it.
I have always been for causes. I love the fact that I’ve played a role in putting the Renaissance Fund on the map, in the new headquarters for the ambulance, and so on. I cried a bit when the Sy Barash Regatta ended on its 20th anniversary. But that was then and this is now. I’ve learned to live in the moment. What is here now is what is on my plate. And I try to nourish it the best I can, with as much energy as I have left. I don’t think about dying much. I think about living.
Marisa: That’s amazing. Thank you so much for sharing with me and with all the readers about your experiences and really how they’ve shaped you and how you continue to just thrive, no matter what is thrown at you, and how you’ve become extremely successful with love and with relationships and with using your voice to really be true to who you are. I’m so glad to have you as a friend and a mentor, and to be able to sit down with you.
Mimi: I want to thank you for suggesting this. I’ve never done this so openly. And I want to thank you for taking on one of the most important challenges that exists in our community. The safety of people who aren’t sure they want to live. It’s a big job and a hard job. So keep up your good work. I’m with you all the w