WellBeing speaks to founder of Heart On My Sleeve, Mitch Walis
How do you start your day?
There’s a lot to be said for discipline, sacrifice and hustle, especially in business and for your mental health. But understanding balance and sustainability is just as important. I’m not a morning person, so I usually wake up around 7am after snoozing my alarm twice. I take my medication (a low-dose SSRI [antidepressant] first thing so I don’t forget), have a shower with at least one minute in cold water, do some breathing exercises, say a prayer, repeat my mantra and head off to work without breakfast (I fast until midday). My maximum creativity window is 9am–12 noon so I do my best to block meetings until the afternoon and reserve this window for ultimate productivity.
How has ambition shaped who you are today?
I would say I have an unhealthy level of ambition or what most would call obsession. Partly because that’s how I am hard-wired; I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) at eight years old so that tendency is in my biology. And partly because I am insanely passionate about mental health. Anxiety, depression and other wellbeing struggles has almost taken my life — and has affected so many people I love — so there is an infinite store of “why” gasoline in the cylinders to come back to when things get hard for me. Which they do every day — especially in the space I work in. It’s tiring on a good day and heartbreaking on a bad day … but it gives back more than it takes.
What are your three tips for someone when experiencing a low point in their mental health?
You must be real to heal. You can do all the meditating, green juice cleanses and yoga retreats in the world, but until you are ready to face your demons, I personally don’t believe you progress — you just Band-Aid and maintain your current state. Going towards the hard parts, such as talking about your feelings and usually in the context of professional therapy, and processing hard truths is not only difficult, but also in direct opposition of our hardwiring to avoid pain. But in my experience the only way around is through. Emotional freedom lives on the other side of courageous action.
Learning how to be loved and love others sustainably is a science and an art form. So much of mental health is influenced by our relationships — for better and for worse. Boundaries are at the heart of human bonding. And when we work on our attachment style and learn to feel seen, heard and understood we find a level of resilience that just can’t be accessed on our own.
The stories you tell yourself about who you are are often false. They are more likely just a familiar train of thought. Belief systems become embedded after years of “evidence” that your brain views as easier to process if you don’t have to challenge the stories. Things like “I’m a failure”, “I’m crazy”, “I’m too much”, “I’m ugly” are almost never true; you’ve just believed them for too long in the absence of a more helpful perspective. Learning how to challenge your thoughts and reframe things in a healthier way is the key to unlock inner peace.
What are some of the challenges young people face today?
Comparison (and subsequent isolation) would have to be the biggest challenge facing young people. It’s impossible to say “Don’t compare yourself to others” because we are animals at the end of the day, and are naturally inclined to do so. The dangerous reality is that reality is no longer comparable. We see unrealistic curated versions of people’s lives and think that unless we stack up to that image we are “less than”. It’s as if young people are standing on a platform of quicksand and expected to build a lifelong castle of self-worth. We need to give our youth a stronger base to build from by showcasing people who are valued for who they are — their character — not what they do, or what they look like on social media.
Your incredible goal is to inspire one billion people towards better mental health. Tell us in what ways you are doing that …
I want whatever I do to be as scalable as possible. That’s why I try and bundle everything I create — whether it be a training course, a peer support service or a product offering — into a model that can reach as many people as it can. Having a background in business and marketing has been incredibly beneficial, as a lot of people like me have the desire to give back and help others but haven’t been afforded the privileges I have in terms of education and career to know how to operationalise that for impact. I don’t take that for granted. Some people can build houses for the underprivileged, others can cook for the undernourished. I wasn’t blessed with many practical skills. My “hammer and spanner” or tools of the trade (so to speak) are entrepreneurship and communication, so I leverage those things in the area that’s near and dear to me.
Please share more about your mental health movement and company, Heart On My Sleeve …
Heart On My Sleeve was born after I shared a story of my own journey that went viral and saw people all around the world tattoo and draw hearts on their arms and share their story. Now it’s a global movement around living with authenticity and not pretending everything is OK when it’s not — because putting on a brave face is often the most painful part. Our programs have been adopted by the likes of KPMG, PwC, AmEx and many others with great success in helping people connect in real ways. I couldn’t be prouder of how we are helping people take a complex, intimidating topic like mental health and normalising that in communities across the globe.
What do you do to blow off steam?
Even though I do lots of presentations in front of lots of people, I am a big introvert at heart. Alone time is the way I recharge. It’s not uncommon to find me binge watching a tonne of Netflix comedy specials, watching random things on YouTube and speaking as little as possible. That said, a night out with mates, a day at the golf course or riding my motorbike is also a treat. But I don’t do a lot of chilling — I spend a lot of time at “work”, which for me means doing what I love: building content, companies and services that help people with their mental health.
What’s next for you professionally?
I am just getting started. I was at Microsoft for seven years before getting into the space of emotional wellness, so as much as I feel I’ve been able to accomplish a lot in a few short years, I am only warming up. People I look up to as my idols, one day I would like them to be my peers: the Brené Browns, Jay Shettys and Steven Bartletts of the world. We have amazing things in the pipeline for Heart On My Sleeve. I’m also working on three books at the moment, building new talks, working on a few new social ventures and feeling grateful for the team behind me that will make it all possible.