Shared personal stories open a dialogue on mental health

From left, Ashley Steinhauer Otto, Caroline Kassie, Carly Bennie and Lauren Kimel-Wise, of The Dialogue Projects
From left, Ashley Steinhauer Otto, Caroline Kassie, Carly Bennie and Lauren Kimel-Wise, of The Dialogue Projects

Every Wednesday, a first-person story is published on The Dialogue Projects (TPD), a website co-founded by three Torontonians. The author of the story is typically female, and usually around the age of a university student. The subjects of the stories are anything but small: illness, suffering, psychological confusion, substance abuse.

The tales are raw, but the reactions from an online community are swift. Shared on social media sites like Facebook, these stories receive a torrent of positive comments. They educate others about personal struggle, while offering a helpful resource to those who may be suffering in silence.

The writers are doing much to add a voice to a subject worthy of immense dialogue: living with mental health difficulties.


Their columns are a weekly staple for The Dialogue Projects (note the plural). The social enterprise wants to end the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding mental illness. When someone exposes the details of a very personal challenge, and that story resonates with an audience, it encourages more people to add to the conversation.

“When people feel like they are part of a family, part of a community, when they have something where they can identify their own experience, [the stories] start piling in like a domino effect,” says Caroline Kassie, one of TDP’s founders.

The backlog of stories built up instantly. Co-founder Ashley Steinhauer Otto says she and her partners never had to reach out to people they knew for personal stories. Each comes from a person yearning to reach out and share her experience.

The project began in the summer of 2014 – a season that saw much discussion over the suicide of actor Robin Williams.

“We saw that the media was finally starting to pick up on the topic of mental health,” Kassie says. “It was important that the dialogue had started and we wanted to keep it going.”

With their third co-founder, Carly Bennie, and the company’s chief marketing officer, Lauren Kimel-Wise, the women began the social enterprise with the goal of creating a dialogue, as well as giving money to local mental health programs. A line of fashionable products was developed to raise money.

White Dialogue Bag in support of SickKids' Medical Psychiatry Alliance
White Dialogue Bag in support of SickKids’ Medical Psychiatry Alliance

On these accessories, such as the TDP tote bag, is the organization’s logo: an elephant with its trunk raised. The animal evokes the proverbial “elephant in the room” and represents how the subject of mental illness is everywhere but is too seldom discussed.
The women had 800 bags with the logo produced and distributed online. Within four months, they had sold out. (T-shirts and mini-pouches are still for sale on the TDP website.)

The organization wants to keep making limited-edition products, such as a new bag that will be available at the end of March. The revamped TDP website, set to launch in April, plans to feature two stories a week and an archive for older “Voices” stories.

TDP currently donates to centres including the Hospital for Sick Children, Baycrest, Progress Place and Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. As the company grows, the founders say they hope to add more affiliate charities outside of Toronto. A recent addition was a chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New York.

Another new alliance is with Minding Your Mind, a peer-resource program aimed to help high school and college-age students. For Kassie, university campuses are a big area of concern. She says many lack robust resources for students dealing with mental health problems.

“At my alma mater, there were six suicides in one academic year last year,” Kassie says, adding that it should be imperative for schools to employ more on-site counsellors.

TDP currently has representatives at six Canadian universities working to spread awareness about the initiative with students.

In recent months, the stories from the “Voices” section have mainly come from Toronto youths and young adults. The next step is to expand to more places and reach more audiences.

“We’d like to receive more voices from different cultures, backgrounds and genders,” Bennie says, noting the stories are usually from young women.


Another goal: turn this initiative into a sustainable for-profit that does good for society.

The three founders laud Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day, which also works toward shattering the stigma around mental health.

Still, they insist more needs to be done to provide resources to those in need. A page from the website claims that nearly two-thirds of people with a mental disorder will never seek help from a mental professional.

“Our long-term mission is to be the go-to place for when people are feeling alone or feeling down,” Kassie says.