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Room for Growth

Stronger Than Stigma’s Living Room pops up in the heart of Downtown

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“I need a nap!” It’s the second time she’s said it, but Gabrielle Magid will be getting no sleep any time soon. The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, as the founder of Stronger Than Stigma brings her latest passion project into reality. The Living Room opened on May 1, with more than 300 people passing through the front door of 211 N. Laura St., Downtown. Weeks later, and the space has seen so many visitors that the door is broken. The wind blows it open periodically, but Magid’s had no time to attend to the hardware; she’s too busy attending to the people for whom The Living Room was conceived: millennials looking for a safe space to negotiate mental health.

Magid talks fast but with precision. Her performance background certainly plays a part. Gabby grew up acting in musical theater, and her current passion is for comedy, be it standup or improv. She was born Sept. 10, 1992, the only child in a Jewish family. The Bolles grad founded Stronger Than Stigma while she was a University of Florida junior. She envisioned a mental-health advocacy organization, but one that spoke to her generation.

“We started in 2013,” she told Folio Weekly, “a little bit before my 21st birthday. I, personally, struggle with anxiety and depression ... For me, that started in high school. It was a very dark time for me, but I always thought to myself that if I lived through this, I’d have to make sure nobody else struggled in isolation, like I did.”

Like many in her position, she didn’t feel comfortable sharing her pain with others, and that kind of repression can often be a recipe for disaster.

“It’s isolating. It’s really isolating to not only have the struggles, but to feel like you can’t talk about it with anyone,” she explained. “So, to me, that’s what I was longing for. I wish I’d had a community of people my own age, not just people, you know, older and wiser than me who could tell me ‘Oh, it gets better, kid.’ People actually sitting in the hall with me.”

Once she got to Gainesville, she began to feel more comfortable sharing her story, and she started reaching out to engage her peers. She was not entirely satisfied with the options that were available at the time.

“I started going to anxiety and depression support groups on campus,” she said. “They’re awesome. They’re filled with great people you would definitely want to be friends with, but the rooms were not packed—fewer than 10 people. All the students have access to free resources, but they either don’t know about them or they’re afraid to reach out for them. That is unacceptable. And they have gorgeous facilities, but they built them under the auspices of the stigma, so they’re in a corner of campus that’s not easy to navigate, and not easy to get to. Yes, you have your privacy, but at what cost? They’re also not getting to as many people as they would if it were in the middle of the quad.”

Then Gainesville suffered a collective trauma that would catalyze Magid’s efforts. On April 16, 2012, a student named Michael Edmonds Jr. jumped to his death from the upper level of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The 26-year-old was an athlete, but he suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition driven by body-image issues and exacerbated by an accident he’d been in two months earlier. He was hit by a car while riding his bike, and that took away his primary coping mechanism. The meds worked only sporadically, as is often the case, so he self-medicated with alcohol. He caught a DUI after crashing his bike early on a Saturday morning. Two days later, he was dead. He was thoughtful enough to make sure no one saw him do it, and he even called 911 first.

The tragedy resonated throughout the state, but nowhere more so than the UF campus itself. That was when Magid decided something had to be done. And something was done: Stronger Than Stigma was launched soon after. It wasn’t easy.

“At first, the original iteration was just a campus-wide campaign to tell students where they could go for help,” said Magid. “That was turned down. The dean told me to join something preexisting and make change from the inside. He also told me it was a great idea, and don’t let it die. I think he wanted me to graduate first, and then do something meaningful, but that just made me upset. I was heartbroken, and went about my business for another semester.”

A birthright trip to Israel helped clarify her purpose, and she realized that her vision for the project could not be contained within the city limits of Gainesville. Once Stronger Than Stigma (STS) took flight, it quickly got a major boost from a prominent backer: the Delores Barr Weaver Foundation, which provided the organization’s first grant. Many other corporate sponsors followed, including Baptist Health, the Community Foundation and even HBO. STS also received support from two families—the Rameys, based in Northeast Florida, and the Ploense family, in Illinois—who have lost loved ones to suicide.

“The people who love the people who struggle are also feeling isolated and helpless,” she explained, “so they need a support network, too.”

A 2018 TEDx talk brought Magid’s message to a whole new audience, expanding the group’s mandate beyond Northeast Florida. Ever since, Stronger Than Stigma has thrived primarily in the digital realm, augmented by physical outreach around the region.

The idea to create a pop-up event space literally popped up, fully formed but spontaneous. “It’s kind of a weird story,” she mused, “in that I can’t explain where the concept came from. I don’t know if it was a dream, or divine inspiration, but I think it was around December. We had some funding that we needed to spend, and it was just an ‘ah ha’ moment.”

Executing her plan did not take long. “It seemed too easy,” she explained. “It was almost too clear of a plan. But everyone I ran it by thought it had legs to stand on.” Once she made the decision to go for it, the next step was to scout locations. There was no shortage of options, but given her target market, it made sense to situate the organization somewhere in the urban core. She reached out to a realtor friend, Matt Clark, who wised her up to the space on Laura Street, previously La Cena restaurant.

Magid is also passionate about projecting a positive image of her generation, which has been unfairly maligned in popular culture. She defines the core mission of Stronger Than Stigma as “mental health advocacy for millennials, by millennials.” That’s one reason she turned to Clark, also a millennial, to find the space. “Nobody believes in our capacity to create change,” she said, “but when we’re motivated, we’re hella motivated.”

Renovations began the first week of April, and work continued even after The Living Room opened. Magid tapped a variety of up-and-coming creators to develop the aesthetic. The bulk of the design work was done by the Castaño Group, led by Kedgar Volta. “I pitched my concept to them, and what you see now on the walls is how they brought that vision to life,” said Magid. “I can’t imagine it any other way.”

Other design elements were provided by Raymond D. Scott and others. Much of the physical labor was done by The Mission Continues, a local volunteer organization that taps into our veterans community to do public-works projects; this was a crucial point of overlap, considering how vastly underserved veterans’ mental health issues have been, particularly in a military town like Jacksonville.

It’s a clean, well-lit space designed to stimulate thought and facilitate conversation. Nearly every inch of visible space is maximized to project messages of introspection and self-care, with bright colors and bold fonts on every surface. The upstairs alcove, accessible through a narrow staircase, is home to an installation designed by Volta's Castaño Group and featuring candid conversations, recorded by Jamie Armstrong, with people about their mental health struggles. These are played back on continuous loop through a series of Victrola-like cones mounted to the wall. The bottom level is set aside for a performance space, and the front area is festooned with couches—a literal living room.

A true pop-up, the space is open for only one month, so Magid and her crew have made sure to stack the calendar with as much activity as possible. There’s something going on almost every day. (Folio Weekly helped with this weekend’s programming.) The resulting schedule reflects the diversity of their movement, with acts that span the spectrum of performance art in this community.

In its short time Downtown, The Living Room has quickly settled into the neighborhood, with other local businesses rushing to help support the project. Just around the corner, The Volstead launched a new craft cocktail called “The Living Room Sofa,” comprising Giffard Pamplemousse, Cloosterbitter, Smoked Chili Hella Bitters, basil and blackberry, and two types of gin (St. George Dry Rye Reposado and Uncle Val’s Restorative). A portion of the cocktail’s sales are kicked back to Stronger Than Stigma.

The Living Room closes on May 31, coinciding with the end of Mental Health Awareness Month. What happens next is anyone’s guess, though Magid plans to reboot the project in other locations in the area. Her ultimate goal is to set up another Living Room in Austin during the 2020 South By Southwest festival. Before all that can happen, though, she needs a nap.

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