Bridging mental health from offline to online

Connected by Storytelling: Larissa May of #HalfTheStory

“We know social media is not going anywhere, so it's really about creating boundaries so that you have more time to not only connect with your friends but to also connect with yourself."

Social media has forever changed the act and art of modern connection.

Its ability to enable both immediate access and feedback has embedded a societal shift in the way we discover and take ownership of our stories online. Through our devices, we bear witness to hyper-curated versions of what we assume to be the complete picture of modern life. But with all of the current challenges that are clouding our ability to decipher truth from deceit, I know that I'm not alone in subscribing to the notion of "I'll believe it when I see it."

Larissa May of #HalfTheStory is someone who is also no stranger to this idea. She's one of those people whose presence you can feel before you even see them in the flesh. Her laugh is infectious, her style is unforgettable, and her energy—whether displayed online or offline—is palpable. So when you do finally see Larissa in her element, you realize that she's someone not to be ignored because her ambition alone is something to believe in.

In many ways, #HalfTheStory (Larissa's social media project turned mental health nonprofit), is a culmination of her varied interests and experiences. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Larissa tapped into the power of storytelling at an early age in her work as a child actor. "I think it was being an actress that made me mentally resilient because at a young age. I was going to interviews and auditions, and I was being told no," she explains when I ask her about the synergy between storytelling and mental health. "To be a ten-year-old and have that be your life is really interesting."

Despite the obstacles she faced, Larissa continued working on several creative pursuits, including fashion blogging, which ultimately became the catalyst in formally launching #HalfTheStory. During her college years, things came to a head as she struggled to balance the demands of student life at Vanderbilt while simultaneously trying to break into the fashion industry. "#HalfTheStory was rooted in storytelling," Larissa reflects. "I started because I was struggling behind the screen with mental health and social media. I realized that I had a social responsibility with my platform, and I had the power to change the way that people felt about themselves in social media simply by changing the way I told my story."

Now with over 10,000 stories submitted from young people around the world, Larissa is embarking on a new chapter of #HalfTheStory's mission that, in a sense, pays homage to her original artistic roots. The company currently aims to "reshape the way the next generation uses social media, through advocacy, education, and access." So far, she's activated this mission through a cross-pollination of content and experiences that bridge the divide between industries. These initiatives range from digital wellbeing programs to the core community-driven content on #HalfTheStory's Instagram page (to that point, Larissa also believes in the importance of remaining connected with your audience in new ways, and she's currently exploring storytelling opportunities on TikTok). A few notable offline initiatives include Brainfood, a performance series in partnership with Brunch Theatre, and a forthcoming film about modern therapy that #HalfTheStory will eventually bring to college and high school campuses nationwide. But like any mission-driven founder, Larissa understands that building a support system is integral to fully realizing one's vision.

When it comes to vital connections that have informed #HalfTheStory's success, it's worth mentioning that two members of #HalfTheStory's team derived from first connecting through the company's Instagram page. "For me, I think what's been interesting about this project is that by creating the nonprofit, it has allowed me to connect with people that are much further along in their career in a very humane way," Larissa shares. "It's almost been this vehicle for conversation where when you go in, we just cut to it. There's something so beautiful about that because, especially in a place like New York where there's so much pressure, and everyone's trying to be something or someone, it's this vehicle to strip back, be human and be able to talk about our needs." 


This element of vulnerability also extends to #HalfTheStory's community members, too. Gabriela Weiss was one of the first people to submit to #HalfTheStory after tragically losing her brother to his battle with mental health. "Basically when that happened, this young woman is living in Bolivia where there's one psychologist per 100,000 people," Larissa adds, "for her, she wanted to use social media as a way to educate people in her local community about how they can get access to resources." After receiving Gabriela's story, Larissa worked closely with her to destigmatize mental health and find relevant resources in her community. Since then, Gabriela has become a prominent advocate for #HalfTheStory in her own community, and today, the duo's story is still unfolding. "Recently, I received a WhatsApp from Gabriela, and it was a photo of her with the #HalfTheStory phone and a TEDx. She gave a TEDx in Bolivia about mental health in social media and #HalfTheStory. For me to be able to see someone that came from such a time of vulnerability and loss come out on the other side and give a TED talk...to be a part of that experience is something I can't even put words to."

"It's almost been this vehicle for conversation where when you go in, we just cut to it. There's something so beautiful about that because, especially in a place like New York where there's so much pressure, and everyone's trying to be something or someone, it's this vehicle to strip back, be human and be able to talk about our needs."

I smile at this. In the four years that I've known Larissa, words have not only come easily to her but have translated into actionable change. She has proven that her presence is her superpower in the many roles she's taken on: fashion blogger, brand consultant, creative entrepreneur, and dear friend. And while it would have been fun to have known her as an actor, it is a privilege to watch Larissa command a new world stage as she works to create a healthier future. "We know social media is not going anywhere," Larissa says before ending our call, "so it's really about creating boundaries so that you have more time to not only connect with your friends but to also connect with yourself."

If you can do that, you're already halfway there, I think to myself. The rest of the story is up to us.

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