Liz Swain 5:30 p.m., Sept. 22
Mood Boost: entrepreneur turns bipolar disorder into inspirational business
Barry Willis offers meaningful employment to fellow depression sufferers.
Following an exhaustive several weeks of working with the impromptu media committee at Occupy San Diego, Barry Willis spent five days during late 2011 bed-ridden with depression.
“While in bed, I grabbed my laptop and told myself that I was going to make this time count for something,” says Willis, who has been diagnosed with bipolar 1 - the most severe form of manic depression.
“I found 550 quotes in different places on the internet that made me feel positive and better in this depressed state of mind. A few weeks later as I was walking around feeling better, I organized them and started printing them on little colored pieces of paper.”
Willis designed a word cloud logo with “Mood Boost” written in the middle and started handing them out to everyone he could.
“I love handing them out, because they are meaningful,” says Willis.
Today, Mood Boost has grown into a company that hires San Diegans affected by mental illness to make products that inspire others with positivity.
A peer facilitator in group meetings at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, Willis has spent 4 hours a week for the past 2 years in support groups sharing his stories and hearing from others who battle mental illness.
“The most common theme in our meetings is lack of money and lack of employment,” Willis says.
“I started asking group members about their backgrounds and found out that we had people who were making six figures working for huge companies [who are] now unemployed with not a penny to their name.”
An entrepreneur himself, Willis started devising a way to provide meaningful employment to his peers.
“I designed a product that was fun to work with and that could be printed, cut, folded, and assembled in their homes. I built a virtual factory where members would hand off materials at meetings to other members so that we could employ as many people as possible. Mood Boost grew as our team grew. One member, who is our CEO, has a law degree from Harvard. She has worked with me to find individuals and develop their passions into other aspects of the company. We have artists and poets and musicians working alongside accountants, teachers, and salespeople.”
Alongside Mood Boost’s inspirational quote packages, Willis produces videos and curates uplifting content sourced from YouTube and Vimeo via his pet project EMBY, or Education through Modern Broadcasting & You.
“Our goal is to eventually support local artists in San Diego and produce [more of] our own content,” says Willis, who holds a degree in Journalism & Broadcasting with an emphasis in Advertising and Sales.
For Willis, working with Mood Boost and EMBY boils down to one word: “Hope.”
“Hope is one of the most powerful medications known to humans. There were people who couldn't find work and me telling them they were hired changed their lives. I am bringing optimism and new perspective to the mental health community. I understand the needs and I'm creating a company that tailors itself to the employee not the other way around. Hope is so important when you talk about depression because once it's lost, suicide shows up. Giving somebody something to do, even if they only make ten dollars that day, in many ways keeps them alive. Mood Boost keeps me going every day.”
Suicide struck home with Willis and his DBSA peers when a friend and group member took her life a few days after last Christmas.
“It hit us all hard. She was sweet and everyone liked her, but we all knew she was suffering. She couldn't afford her medication and she went off them only to get so depressed she took her life. We grieve, but on some level we know her suffering has ended. I got really motivated after that because I didn't want to lose anybody else.”
While suicide gets the most attention, Willis says that, for him, it's not the most tragic part of depression.
“There are literally millions of amazingly talented, well educated, incredible human beings that live these hollow lives wondering where they went wrong because they expected so much more for themselves. They have no job, lose support from friends who don't want to be brought down, and have families that start to distance themselves from the illness. It gets really lonely and frustrating so they turn to other depressed people for help. Peer support keeps most of us alive. Even with medication it can be a long road out of a clinically depressed state. There is no jetpack out of there.”
However, Willis says that Mood Boost offers the first rung on a very tall ladder.
“I'm not all the way up, but I can see the top. I help [others] get on the ladder and together we make ourselves useful. A lot of depression is feeling worthless. I try to show people how valuable they are and pump them up. It's exhausting for me, but when I get down others become cheerleaders for me so we help keep each other productive.”
Mood Boost also targets feelings of isolation.
“Many depressed people feel isolated and alone. I let them know they are on a team. They are connected. We are humans, we are real, and we care about each other. We are taking this journey together and we will work together and play together. This company is meaningful because we are helping ourselves while we help others.”
Mood Boost was recently spotlighted at the DBSA national convention in Florida, where over 200 chapters were introduced to the model that Willis created to provide meaningful employment for fellow sufferers of depression.
“You can see people read them, think, smile, and their attitude is different,” Willis says.
“It allows you to pause life for a moment and think about something profound. For people with depression, this small break from the pain means a lot.”