At an Architects of Change: The Conversation Series live event on Sunday, January 10, Maria Shriver interviewed her cousin Former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy about his just released book “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.” Kennedy discussed details of his personal and political battle with mental illness and addiction and our country’s mental health care history. Alexis Kauchik was selling her candles at the event. Watch her tell Maria Shriver (above) about what she hopes to accomplish as a true Architect of Change.
It was early in the morning on August 18, 2011
It was a week before my freshman year and I was ecstatic to start this new chapter of my life as a “high schooler”. I wanted to grow up, and I wanted to grow up fast. The news I received that morning truly answered my wishes. That morning, I received the news that my big brother had passed away from an aortic aneurysm the night before. I couldn’t breathe. In between gasps for air, I was able to get out “Why, why him, why did this happen”.
I will never know why this happened, but I do know that this tragedy changed me, and it made me strive to be a better person. My brother Todd was incredibly generous and touched the hearts of many due to his creativity. He picked up new hobbies quickly and perfected them almost instantly. Before he passed, his most recent hobby had been candle making and he told me one day he would teach me how.
In the months following his passing, I had a very difficult time coping with his loss so I channeled that energy and kept him alive in my heart by making candles. I wanted to make candles in honor of him, but the whole time I knew Todd would have wanted our candles to have a bigger meaning, and I was still searching for what that meaning was.
In 2014, Eternal Essence discovered its purpose when one of my best friends committed suicide. In that moment I knew my candles were meant to bring awareness to mental illness. After a few second degree burns and some practice perfecting the art of candle making, I founded Eternal Essence Candle, a 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to Todd and Asher working towards diminishing the stigma associated with mental illness.
Mental illness is all around us, but when do any of us talk about it? As a society we subconsciously avoid the topic as a taboo, and this wouldn’t be the case if we were able to bring it up in a conversation without someone feeling uncomfortable. According to the Adolescent Depression Awareness Program (ADAP) at Johns Hopkins University, 1 in 5 adolescents in the United States have, or will suffer from mental disorder. This statistic is disturbing in a sense because mental illness is all around us yet it is never discussed. After witnessing how people talked of Asher’s death, I decided to do what I could to bring attention to the often-stigmatized issue that affected my loved ones – by crafting candles. To me, their flickering lights symbolize the unpredictable effects caused by mental illness but also represent that despite darkness there is always a light. Different diseases and cancers have recognizable specific colors or symbols associated with them to inspire hope, so why not mental illness? I think candles should represent this disease.
We need to have a conversation about mental illness, because people don’t understand what it is. All of the profits from Eternal Essence are donated to charity, such as The Ryan Licht Sang Bipolar Foundation – an organization dedicated to fostering research for early-onset bipolar disorder or other mental illness institutions around the country. Through candle making I have been able to donate over $70,000 to these organizations. I believe it’s important as a young generation to be socially conscious and act on it. If we can start talking about mental illness, it’s one step closer to healing. I can only hope that the work I am doing will help one person talk about this disease and in turn prevent the loss of a loved one.