Every day, the importance of destigmatizing mental illness in the United States becomes more and more apparent. It isn’t easy. When the practice of airing your feelings openly on social media is more popular than confiding in a friend or family member, opening up a dialogue takes some work.
But that work is what keeps John Tessitore and the JCK Foundation thriving. The organization’s mission is to raise awareness for mental health disorders through a variety of speaking engagements, events, and podcasts, with an aim to alleviate social stigma and provide a channel for those affected to seek help. It also works to secure academic grants for academic research into mental illness.
“We’d like to get a lot more money flowing into academic research specifically about mental health, specifically about the high school to college age range of intervention, because that’s where we saw it in a lot of our friends, and that’s where frankly we saw it in ourselves, too,” explains Mike Esposito, JCK Foundation Director.
The foundation is named after John Cleaver Kelly, a remarkable friend of Tessitore’s with whom he shared a disorder: OCD. The pair opened up to each other about their lives, inner thoughts, and daily struggles with the anxiety disorder, relying on each other to help make what might seem to be abnormal more approachable.
“I actually felt this really calming feeling when everything was really hectic, and I was isolated in my own head,” says Tessitore. “He would always reach out to me and make sure I was doing good.”
However, as Tessitore opened himself up to discussing his disorder, Kelly closed up, succumbing to his mental illness and taking his own life in 2011. Ever since, Tessitore has been determined to remember his friend for the openness he provided during their journey, and ensure that others don’t fall victim to the same fight.
Only a few months after Kelly’s passing, Tessitore and several other friends memorialized Kelly’s life and spread his story by hosting a memorial softball tournament in Dobbs Ferry. After three successful tournaments, they decided it was time to share Kelly’s story with a wider audience through the JCK Foundation.
The JCK Foundation continues to work toward removing the negative stigma on social illness so those affected are more open to finding help. Its efforts reach as far as Kabale, Uganda, where the foundation has embarked on a psychiatric outreach program to rural villages in that area.
Its founders also host a podcast, recently renamed Collective Layers, aimed at providing positive and educational content that encourages and comforts those who either suffer or are close to someone who suffers.
“It made me feel so good to know that John’s legacy was impacting people in this way, and it really gave me a sense of purpose and a sense of belief. And John may not be here, but I feel like it’s my purpose to keep spreading his mission and to keep making people’s lives better in his honor,” says Tessitore.