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Susan Stilwell

By Monterey County WeeklyAugust 11, 2016Media

By  Nic Coury, Monterey County Weekly

When it comes to providing disaster relief, fighting cancer or stewarding animal welfare, numerous organizations come to mind. But for a less visible challenge such as youth mental illness, no charity leaps out as a leader in funding research and building awareness. Susan Stilwell is hoping to change that.

Stilwell has created a successful mental health awareness operation through her family’s nonprofit, AIM for Mental Health, which has disbursed over $700,000 toward research since its creation in 2014. The Pebble Beach resident and mother is also an animal rights activist, a lawyer and a natural go-getter who owns and operates the boutique luxury hotel Tradewinds Carmel.

Stilwell spoke with the Weekly about the importance of mental health, and how AIM has claimed its place at the forefront of facilitating mental illness research and awareness. Because of her success and ambition, AIM hopes to expand from Monterey County to reach several universities throughout California.

This fall, the organization hosts its first major awareness event at a university, with walk at USC Sept. 29. On Thursday, Aug. 18, it hosts a gala dinner fundraiser in concert with Car Week.

Weekly: What led you to create AIM?

Stilwell: Growing up, my mother had anxiety. I was just trying to make her happy, but there really wasn’t any help for her and people didn’t want to talk about it. On the Monterey Peninsula, there are so many charities and people are very philanthropic, but there was nothing specifically raising money to find cures for mental health disorders.

How is your family involved in the organization?

My daughter and I were part of National Charity League for six years doing volunteer work for a number of nonprofits, none of which focused on mental health for kids. I decided to do something because I still had two children in high school – a junior and a senior – and I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to raise awareness and get the kids talking about it. My husband has also traveled with me to different universities to meet top doctors.

What’s the hardest thing to stomach about mental illness and the way people react to it?

The hardest part is having people unconscious of the fact that there is little research, and that no one is really doing anything about it. My frustration is that even though there’s a lot of support, there’s a hesitancy for people to get involved, largely because of the stigma.

How much does the stigma impact the public’s view of mental health?

The stigma isn’t going to go away until people get better treatment. Someone with depression or anxiety may not be able to physically get the movement going, and their families are emotionally and financially overwhelmed by it. It’s almost too raw of a concept, whereas a mother whose child has cancer will be in a parade or Relay for Life.

What is a common misconception about mental disorders in youth?

A lot of people will say that they’re just being teenagers or that it’s hormonal and that they’ll grow out of it. People don’t understand that it’s an actual chemical imbalance in your body: a physical disease. It’s not just a mental thing that is cured by changing the way you think.

What will surprise people about this year’s gala dinner?

We have speakers like Kevin Hines, who attempted suicide by jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge and survived;Wayne Carini from Chasing Classic Cars, whose daughter has autism; and Paraag Marathe, the chief strategist for the 49ers whose sister died from an eating disorder. We’re talking about the byproducts and that includes addiction, suicide and juvenile delinquency.

What do you see in the future for AIM?

I see it being a national movement where people know there’s an organization focused on finding solutions for mental health disorders in youth. We want to be the umbrella organization, so if you walk up to someone on the street and ask them where they’d donate for mental health, they think of AIM.

The Third Annual Aim For The Cures Gala Dinner features cars, wines, chefs and entertainment. 5-10pm, Thursday, Aug. 18. Parc du Concours Venue Tent, Portola Road and Stevenson Drive, Pebble Beach. $500/person.

AIM for Awareness Walk is a two-mile walk with music, food and exhibitors. 8-11am, Sunday, Oct. 23. Lovers Point Park, Ocean View Boulevard and 17th Street, Pacific Grove.

Read the original article in full on County Weekly.