Late actor Lee Thompson Young with his sister Tamu Lewis and mother Dr. Velma Love.
Late actor Lee Thompson Young with his sister Tamu Lewis and mother Dr. Velma Love.

Founded in 2014, the Lee Thompson Young Foundation is dedicated to erasing the stigma associated with mental illness, advancing holistic health treatments and improving the lives of all those impacted. The organization focuses on connecting the general public with information, supporting research and sponsoring youth programming that strengthens support systems and promotes well being.

The foundation bears the name of Lee Thompson Young, who died tragically young, but had a big impact on this millennial writer. I particularly remember Disney’s “The Famous Jett Jackson,” about the adventures of a teenage secret agent, and the value of seeing a fellow young Black male in this starring role. This imagery was as impactful earlier in my life as “Black Panther,” T’Challa, and the majestic Wakanda have been in more recent years. Graduating with honors from USC, Young made the successful transition from popular childhood actor to young Hollywood star, working on shows like “Friday Night Lights,” “Smallville,” and most notably, TNT’s “Rizzoli & Isles.”

Recently securing a grant from the Fulton-Dekalb Hospital Authority, the Lee Thompson Young Foundation partnered with the AAKOMA Project in Virginia, which focuses on teen mental health for people of color. This is a good example of the kind of partnership the foundation and its leadership seek out. Executive Director Stephanie Johnson explains the roots of their charity: “Lee’s family started the organization as a way to fill a void for individuals in his community that needed more education around mental illnesses, stigma related to mental illness, and help educators spot early warning signs in children.”

Young’s mother, Velma Love, and his sister, Tamu Lewis, co-founded the organization, which has since built out a modest board of directors and key consultants. Johnson herself began with the foundation as a behavioral health consultant, having worked in management of first episode psychosis and early intervention for schizophrenia clinical trials at Emory University, School of Medicine. She became increasingly involved in the foundation, spearheading some of its early programming, and eventually signed on full-time.

“He Was Doing Everything Right”

As with many other health philanthropy stories, including mental health, personal motivations animate everything that the Lee Thompson Young Foundation does. Though his career was on the rise as he played Detective Barry Frost on the long-running “Rizzoli & Isles,” behind the scenes, Young was battling bipolar disorder. By all accounts, Johnson tells me, Young was doing everything right. “He was taking care of himself. He was on medication. He was seeing a doctor for several years… It was a situation where his mother saw the signs early and was able to get help early. Early treatment and intervention is key,” she says.

Then, in 2013, at the age of 29, Young took his life.

In the wake of tragedy, Love and Lewis launched the foundation, which has gradually grown over time. Its signature MIND Program works mainly in K-12 schools in Greater Atlanta. The program is geared toward empowering administrators and school personnel so they can learn the broad spectrum of mental health, including what to look for in children, when to recognize help is needed, and how to create bridges to resources in their communities.

MIND has since deepened its work, and now provides training to young adults and college students. And beyond the program, Johnson also developed a five-week Emotional & Resilience Training Program based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Daniel Goleman’s concept of emotional intelligence, and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

According to the foundation, in 2019, over 2,000 people participated in its programs, including weekly student group sessions in eight Atlanta-area schools, focusing on mental wellness.

Tackling Disparities Within Disparities

As we’ve reported previously, advocates for mental health services and research have long complained that their field is woefully neglected by philanthropy. Reasons for this may include the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues and the desire among donors to focus on challenges that seem less intractable, like finding treatments for cancer or heart disease.

Still, mental health issues loom large in the United States and around the world. Nearly half of all American adults will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. And while rates of mental illness in African Americans are comparable to the general population, access to treatment and quality of treatment is a different story. According to the American Psychiatric Association, compared to whites, African Americans are less likely to receive guideline-consistent care, are less frequently included in research, and more likely to use emergency rooms or primary care rather than mental health specialists.

In addition, Black people with mental health conditions, particularly schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and other psychoses are more likely to be incarcerated than people of other races. A few years ago, Charles Thomas, a Black University of Chicago student suffering a severe mental breakdown, was shot by police.

As a veteran clinical therapist and researcher, Johnson has seen these disparities first-hand. “In my experience, I tended to work with people, African American men, who were suffering with symptoms for quite some time before they sought help. Maybe their mother or grandmother was taking care of them. And even when they said they recognized a problem, they just didn’t know where to go for help.”

Part of the foundation’s work involves helping people navigate the mental health system and empowering them to seek out the right professionals who can get them the specific treatment they need. Still, Johnson notes that part of the problem begins not when a patient shows up in a clinician’s office, but even before that, on the research side. She notes that if people of color aren’t empowered to lead these studies, these disparities will remain. “If we’re not asking questions, and if we don’t trust the science to participate in these studies, we will continue to get results that don’t speak to our story,” Johnson tells me.

Looking ahead, she aims to focus on more stories of people getting the help they need in order to change some of the narratives around mental health. Part of this work will involve telling more of Young’s own story, which understandably wasn’t always easy to do, especially in the wake of his passing. But now, perhaps the late actor’s mental health story can provide a power similar to that as his pioneering roles on screen.

Raising Funds and Targeting Creatives

“Right now, I’m a staff of one,” Johnson says with a laugh, shifting to describing the lean operation of the foundation. These days, Johnson has been looking at ways to increase fundraising, including getting more funding for general operations, eventually to hire more staff.

Still, she’s been encouraged by the support the foundation has been able to rake in, including from Lee’s fans who donate, but who also spread the word about the foundation’s work via social media. In turn, the foundation recently provided free mindfulness and breath work videos to its Facebook page members.

While much of the foundation’s work has focused on Georgia and South Carolina, where Lee grew up and where his mother Velma has taught, Johnson notes that their social media following reaches as far as Canada, Europe and India.

Johnson also made an interesting point about reaching out to creatives, who seem to be especially vulnerable to mental illness. This is another way to bring Lee Thompson Young’s story full circle; she adds that no one on set knew about his battles, likely because as a Black man, he felt it was yet another reason for productions not to hire him.

“How do we educate parents whose kids are going into the industry? What about agents, managers? How do we empower them?… This is a way for our organization to really have a lane here,” she says.

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