Look Who’s Coming to Dinner


By Allan Agee

It was shocking. Aryna Sabalenka’s boyfriend, Konstantin Koltsov, leapt from a highrise balcony to his death just before the Miami Open. The passing of the NHL star not only shook the tennis community – it was emblematic of a much bigger issue. Mental health problems are a scourge in our society. And tennis is as tough as any sport when it comes to mental challenges. You’re out there by yourself. Your body is all but tortured – or at times it feels that way. Only one player wins each week. The travel is brutal, the loneliness is soul-deadening. No. 11 Daria Kasatkina said that the prime part of being a pro was the devastating realization that you are always away from home.

Jennifer Capriati, Monica Seles, Steffi Graff and Amanda Anisimova are just a few stars who’ve faced daunting mental health problems.

Worse yet, these issues have long been a stigma: “Don’t say a thing – Showing your vulnerability is such a sign of weakness.” The message was clear: “Chin up, man up – deal with it. You’re on your own.” Dr. Tom Insel, who for 13 years headed the National Institute for Mental Health, said, “The mental healthcare system is so badly broken, it doesn’t even qualify as a system.” But the good news is that tennis often has been at the forefront when it comes to confronting issues, whether it’s racism, sexism, gay rights or, now, mental health.

Former world No. 6 Cliff Richey wrote a book on depression. Both Andre Agassi and later Nick Kyrgios openly spoke of their demons, and how much they hated tennis. And the once delightfully innocent Naomi Osaka courageously dove into mental health issues and amplified the pressure and anguish that are so much a part of being a competitive athlete.

Others have also worked to gain mastery over all the challenges. Novak Djokovic, who as a kid was deeply traumatized by war, seems to do it all: yoga, meditation, deep breathing and nature therapy – whether sitting by a canyon or atop a mountain.

Another No. 1 player, doubles whiz Mike Bryan, told Inside Tennis, “Seeking mental health has been critical in my journey.” Early and often in his career, Bryan used yoga and mindfulness training to deal with all the expectations and pressures. Twenty-three years ago Mike saw how the Las Vegas-based Inspiring Children Foundation (ICF) was a cutting-edge group that creatively combined mental wellness training and athletic development; how their holistic, all-hands-on-board approach for kids to cope with anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies.

ICF’s local work was astounding, and their success kickstarted some mind-boggling spinoffs.

Follow us here. For starters, Bob Pittman, the founder of MTV, was eager to find a charity that would advance mental wellness. After a deep-dive study, he reached out to ICF co-founders Ryan Wolfington and the iconic singer-songwriter Jewel. A tireless mental wellness advocate, Jewel contends, “I really believe happiness is for everybody. It doesn’t matter what our backgrounds are, no matter what our resources are. It doesn’t matter how much damage you’ve had. We’re all capable of living whole, happy, satisfied lives.

“For me, cultivating stillness, developing a really intimate relationship with myself, has fixed a lot of other ills. It’s made me a less anxious, insecure and reactionary person, all through very simple acts of mindfulness.”

With all this in mind, Pittman, Jewel and Wolfington had one simple idea: Let’s let folks know that mental health is for everyone, and we mean everyone. Let’s remind people they’re not alone. Yes, kids have to deal with parental issues, with their emotions and their anger. So let’s arm them with a toolkit so they can heal and thrive. Let’s take this to a whole new scale. Let’s reach the masses.

And bingo! The #NotAloneChallenge was founded. In just three years the online mental health initiative got a whopping 3.1 billion viewers on social media. There was much coverage from the New York Times, CNN, Fox and Vogue. Lionel Richie, Deepak Chopra, Cyndi Lauper, Alice Cooper, Andrea Bocelli and Sloane Stephens were just some of the celebs who lent a hand.

And then a big-hearted billionaire came forward with the idea of taking The #NotAloneChallenge even farther.

The much celebrated Dr. George Rapier had suffered family loss and heartbreak and was fiercely determined to bring mental health accessibility to the masses. He knew that activating the private sector was key. Top entrepreneurs, entertainers and influencers could make things happen. Plus he sensed it was essential to get beyond the doom and gloom that hangs over the world of mental health. Yes, for sure, it’s critical to have programs based on proven policies, but let’s put things in a positive context – and also have some fun as we’re battling for change.

So Dr. Rapier conceived the idea of staging a series of not-to-be-forgotten high-end dinners in many cities. The #NotAloneChallenge & Dinner Series, presented by Foundation Reserve, consists of memorable gatherings with intimate concerts. A-list celebrities, top CEOs, thought leaders, major influencers, inspiring speakers, private label wines and afternoon tennis clinics with the Bryan Brothers are all part of the picture.

In addition to Jewel, singers Bono, Sting, Michael Bolton, Andy Grammer, Luis Fonsi and comedian Chevy Chase are slated to participate. The first dinner was held in Vegas and others will follow in LA, Miami, New York, Aspen, and Florence.

Rapier’s idea is to motivate go-getters in leadership positions to help bring mental health awareness to millions. As Jewel notes, “Anxiety, depression and suicide rates are at a historic high, yet 50% of Americans who need them don’t have access to proven tools and resources.” But thanks to Rapier’s generosity, that may soon change.

So visit www.inspiring children.org/events or www.inspiringchildren.org/notalone, look who’s coming to dinner and see how you can help combat the mental health crisis that’s plaguing our nation.



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