Meghan Parkansky didn't set out to put together an entire festival around the cause of mental health awareness. But this Sunday, when the In This Together Festival takes over the Avalon in Hollywood, that's exactly what she'll be doing.
"It started out as an idea just to raise money for a documentary I'm developing about the mental healthcare system," explains the 30-year-old Wisconsin native, who moved to Los Angeles five years ago to pursue a career in documentary filmmaking, editing and post-production. But she was determined to do something more interesting than a standard fundraiser, with speakers and a fancy dinner. "I just wanted it to be something that I thought would be cool and something I would want to go to."
The fruit of Parkansky's labor is a diverse lineup featuring music, comedy and a live presentation of the Mental Illness Happy Hour, a weekly podcast that explores issues of mental health, trauma and addiction in often surprisingly humorous ways. Their guest on Sunday will be NBA player Royce White, who has been very open about his struggles with an anxiety disorder. Mortified, the acclaimed showcase of people's awkward childhood writings, will also make a live appearance, along with comedian Beth Stelling and musicians Deqn Sue, Kimya Dawson and Daniel Johnston.
Parkansky wanted to take an "entertainment first" approach in putting together her event, because she feels too many attempts to address the stigma surrounding mental health wind up preaching to the choir. She asked herself, "How do I make this an event that doesn't just welcome mental health advocates? Because I don't need to change those people's minds. I need to take away the stigma of those who have it."
It was important to Parkansky that every participant, while not necessarily actively struggling with their own mental health issues, be both a great entertainer and representative of what she wanted the festival to stand for: "Authenticity, vulnerability ... I'm very quick to say no to whoever doesn't fit into the category, or else we're going to lose the core of what we stand for."
No one, of course, represents that sense of authenticity in the face of mental illness better than Daniel Johnston, the veteran Austin-based singer-songwriter who has channeled his lifelong struggles with schizophrenia into beautifully idiosyncratic, childlike songs and illustrations. Parkansky immediately thought of him as a headliner — and was equally excited to land Kimya Dawson, formerly of the alt-folk duo Moldy Peaches, whom Parkansky describes as "a good kind of weird that I love. That's an extension of our message — we want the weirdos to come and be weird, and that's OK."
Like many mental health advocates, Parkansky has faced her own challenges. She went through a period of severe depression during college and also experienced two episodes of psychosis. At the time, having grown up in a small town in Wisconsin, she had no frame of reference for what she was going through. "I didn't know I was depressed," she says. "I thought it was just what growing up felt like." Part of her goal with In This Together is to help things like the Mental Illness Happy Hour, which she wishes she could have discovered during her own depression, reach a wider audience.
She also hopes, by speaking openly about her own mental health issues, to help destigmatize a set of conditions that many people still struggle with in secret. Especially in the age of Google and social media, there is still a real risk that "coming out" with a mental health disorder can harm your career and love life. But, says Parkansky, "because of the work I'm doing, it's my duty to be honest about this."
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In the wake of the presidential election, the mission of In This Together has taken on a greater sense of urgency — and not just because many liberals and Democrats have been sent into depressive tailspins faced with the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. (Parkansky notes that the event will also feature support groups for anyone grappling with post-election depression and anxiety.) The passage of the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare") greatly expanded access to mental healthcare — but Trump and the Republicans have vowed to repeal Obamacare, which could mean millions of Americans might lose their insurance owing to such "pre-existing conditions" as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
As In This Together expanded in scope, Parkansky's documentary took a backseat to her work organizing the festival. Now, instead of putting money raised by the festival towards her film, she is hoping to roll any profits back into another, larger In This Together in 2017. Her eventual goal is to host similar festivals in other cities around the country, where her message of compassion and destigmatization needs to be heard now more than ever — and heard in a way that can also amuse and entertain.
"There is laughter in all of this dark stuff. I want there to be just guttural laughter going on at this event. Because it could so easily be seen as dark and dreary and that's not the message," she says. "It's counter-intuitive to think you can come to an event about mental health and mental illness and leave having had fun and having laughed so hard, but that was important to me."
The In This Together Festival takes place Sunday, Nov. 12, at Avalon Hollywood. Tickets and more info.