In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, Bradi Nathan joins the podcast to talk about the life and legacy of her son, Jack. He set up an art studio in the basement of his fraternity house to channel his feelings of anxiety and depression. Soon after, he parlayed his love of art into a way to help other kids who felt the way he did. Jack founded a website called Happy Jack’s World, to support mental health organizations. Sadly, Jack passed away in 2020. Bradi and David discuss how she has continued what Jack started, what perseverance looks like, and the importance of being outspoken about the common struggles we all face.
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Being Comfortable With Being Different With Bradi Nathan
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It’s going to be a little bit of a different episode. It’s an honor for Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s such an important message. At Meetup, the number of support groups is over doubled. In this episode, we’re going to talk to someone, Bradi Nathan, who lost a child and has devoted herself and her life to helping others. Please read this episode and share it with others because even if you’re not going through something, guaranteed you know someone who is.
Bradi, it is such an honor to have you on the show. I’m genuinely hoping that it’s a small step among the many amazing steps you’ve taken so far in furthering your mission and Jack’s mission, providing a safe haven for kids struggling with emotional health. You’ve built a community of deep meaning. I’m glad that you’re going to be a part of this show and that so many people can learn from you. We’ll start off. Tell us a little bit about your son, Jack Nathan, and Happy Jack’s World that you and he built together. Let’s start with that.
Number one, I cannot take any credit for the build-out of Happy Jack’s World, but I will take all the credit for giving birth to this child because, in my eyes, he’s one in a million. Jack went to the University of Denver. For anyone who struggles with mental illness, any life change like a move to college can be traumatic. He already struggled with anxiety and bouts of depression. It was exasperated when he went to school.
He always loved art, and he set up an art studio in the basement of his fraternity house. He would blast Mac Miller and paint for hours. He said to me that it was the one place where his mind stopped reeling. It’s where he found peace. It was his happy place. He said to me, “One day, mom, if I can help one person not feel the way I do, it will have all been worth it.”
What he meant by that was if he could parlay his love of art into a way to help other kids who felt the way he did, then he wanted to give it a go. With that, he transferred his art onto apparel and started heat pressing in his dorm room sweatshirt after t-shirt, and he would sell them to kids in the fraternity house and went through other schools.
He sent me a text in January. He said, “Mom, happy Jack is back. I’ve never been so happy in my life,” then COVID hit. He had to come home. That’s another traumatic event for anyone who suffers and even those who don’t. This was January 2020. I’ve never been so happy in my entire life too. The kid came home in March 2020.
COVID was, for many different ages, horrible in many ways. For college students, it’s the time that you’re exerting your independence. I have kids myself. I know a little bit about how challenging it is, but people without college students don’t appreciate what an important time that is in someone’s development and how hard that is to revert back to going back home. Please continue.
For anyone who struggles with mental illness, any life change like a move to college can be traumatic.
He landed back home. I’m not thrilled about it. I was secretly happy that he was with us. He decided that he would build a website called Happy Jack’s World. He would input all of his designs and, as Jack said, “Make them available to the world so that anyone could buy them. Not only the kids on campus.” With the help of his friends, he took that time over COVID to order merchandise, set up an LLC, manufacture the goods, and do a photoshoot by the lights. You name it. He didn’t want help from me. He didn’t want help from his father. He was something he was steadfast and doing on his own.
He launched the site on June 7th, 2020. Within the first week of sales, he donated $1,000 to the Child Mind Institute. It’s something I’m proud of, but I didn’t even know that he made this donation. I learned about it through Instagram. When he had spoken to the people at the Child Mind, they thought he was older than he was because they asked them to be the exclusive beneficiary. He said, “Mom, I don’t want to sign a contract. I want to be able to give to everybody. I want to help everyone.”
Can you share with Child Mind is for us who don’t know?
Child Mind is one of the biggest mental health organizations that not only help children but do a ton of research within the field. We have donated money to them on Jack’s behalf to help other kids. They’ve been instrumental in creating change in this space. We’re very grateful for them, but Jack had found them on his own. Kudos to him for that. On June 7th, he launched a site, and I lost him a month later, literally.
It had nothing to do with mental health. My son went to a party, and he did not come home. I strongly believe that he would still be running Happy Jack. If you were still with us now and because he’s not, I feel a huge sense of responsibility to these kids, to his friends to continue what he started. There’s no other option for me. This is what I’m going to do and whoever was in it with me is in it, and Jack’s father as well and my daughter. We’ve got to get up for her every day. We’re doing our best.
Jack continues to change people’s lives. He’s doing it through you, your daughter, and the amazing things you’ve built. I’m sure he’s proud of you beyond, and you’re proud of him beyond.
I would have done anything for Jack when he was here, and that goes without saying that I’ll do anything for him now. It’s that maternal instinct that you go above and beyond for your kids. There’s no difference in how I feel now.
There are so many things that I love personally to learn from you and for our audience to learn from you. As I hear the story, it makes me think about the incredible perseverance that Jack had throughout his teenage years, the perseverance of being comfortable, being different than others, being an entrepreneur as a freshman in college and building something and dealing with COVID as a college student, and of you as his mother helping to continue Jack’s legacy. Is that a word you would describe as important? Would you put other words as more important? Talk about perseverance a little bit, the impact of how the community can help around perseverance.
That’s the perfect word to describe who Jack was. He put one foot in front of the other despite what he was going through. He encouraged everyone to do the same. What I mean by that is he thought that if he could be transparent about his own mental health struggles and be outspoken, he could help other kids persevere. The most important thing that I want kids and parents to know is that when you have a child or you yourself suffer from mental illness in any capacity, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a death sentence.
We can persevere in the face of adversity. I promise you. We can. I know that because I’ve seen my son do it. I never imagined I would be able to do it, and I do. You get up and put one foot in front of the other. You know in your heart that you were put on this earth for a greater purpose. I have to believe that Jack’s nineteen years were greater than that. Perseverance is everything.
If someone’s depressed, the hardest thing is perhaps perseverance because it’s so easy to want to retreat. I don’t know if there’s advice or how you could take that step and how you take one step and one foot in front of the other. Having gone through what you’ve gone through and seeing what you’ve seen, do you have advice or suggestions around what people can do to enable that when they don’t feel it and how hard it is? Any thoughts specifically to help people around how to take on that very important step-by-step action?
Jack is my son. Some of his traits and genetics come from me, so I, too, have suffered. If my son can be transparent, so can I. What bothers me is all the TikToks you see like, “Get up in the morning and make your bed and you’ll feel better. Meditate, and you’ll feel better.”
We can persevere in the face of adversity.
It’s almost a negative for many people because they’ll try it and be like, “It’s not that easy.” It mitigates how deep some of these things are. That’s why I’m asking someone like you because it’s so easy to be like, “Get up out of bed,” but it’s not easy. Please continue.
I can meditate until my face falls off. If I’m depressed, I’m depressed. Nothing’s going to change that, but I allow myself to be depressed. I allow myself those days to lay in bed, and I’m okay with that. If everyone else isn’t, it’s not my problem, but I need those days. Some days I’m able to be present, and other days I’m not. I can’t be hard on myself for that.
Depression is real, and it’s fluid. It changes from one moment to another, from one day to the next. We have to be kinder to ourselves. Allow ourselves the room to be depressed, lay in bed, feel lazy, not pick up the phone, and know that it’s okay. We are human. We don’t have to be on every moment of every day.
It was hard initially to speak to someone in terms of therapy, but I knew that it was necessary. Personally, I don’t believe that a lot of people seek out therapy because then they have to deal with something. I have to deal with the fact that my son is no longer here. It’s easier to go to sleep, but I know I have to talk it through. I know that any natural guilt or anything associated with losing a child has to be spoken about. For me, that has helped as well.
I love writing. Writing is a natural platform for me. I find healing in writing. I would say to other people, “Find your passion.” For Jack, it was art. For me, it’s writing. Lose yourself in it because it’s a tremendous distraction and a place where you can find peace. No matter what that might be, whether it’s art or music or dance or anything, find that outlet and get lost in it.
I don’t know if people are losing themselves as much as they could also be finding themselves when they’re doing those things too. In writing, it’s so cathartic, like you said. You could be finding yourself in dance and art. It’s almost like being comfortable doing things that are not the typical things. One of the things that I had read that you’ve written and talked about before is something that Jack said it’s boring to be normal. I love that as someone who likes to think of himself as not “normal” in a very positive way. There’s such a stigma, especially around teenagers, because of social pressure of not being “the same” as everyone else and taking the exact same path as everyone else.
There’s also that pressure in the communities we live in for people “in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.” There’s that same pressure, but it’s a different type of pressure for teenagers and college students in terms of “normal.” If you don’t mind, share a little bit more about that and all the dangers of having to feel the same as everyone else within the same timeframe as everyone else. My wife and I were talking about our kids. All children are our seeds, and you plant the seeds. Sometimes they have different growth horizons. They grow faster and grow slower at different times. If you could share a little bit around come normal, that would be fine.
I truly don’t believe in my heart of hearts that there is a normal. If you speak to anyone, we all have hardships. We’ve all suffered, some unimaginable, some not, but we all have experienced suffering. What does a normal life even look like? It’s a matter of having a conversation with someone to realize that we have all endured something. Whatever picture-perfect life you might see on social media is not a reality.
How do you get more people to realize that? Few people, especially younger people, realize how much there’s no such thing as “normal.”
It is by owning who you are, unapologetically. The more of us that can do that like Jack, I would encourage someone else to do the same. Jack said, “I feel screwed up at times. This is who I am. I suffer from anxiety. I suffer from depression. Love it or leave it. This is me.” Jack was also the most popular, the best looking, and the most athletic like he seemingly had this perfect life. People thought he was funny, charming, and charismatic.
He was all of those things, but inside, he was hurting. I knew that as his mother. Once you started to speak openly about it, people, his friends, and his peers were like, “I see myself in you. You’re not that different than who I am. We are more similar than I ever imagined.” Regardless of what group Jack was or someone else was a part of, they identified with him. I don’t even know if normal is an even accurate word.
Bradi, I like what you said specifically about how you don’t know someone. You know your child. You know your significant other. You may not even fully know your best friend but the external manifestation of what someone appears to be and what’s going on inside of them are many times incredibly divergent.
A mental illness doesn’t discriminate.
For me, that’s always been a source of optimism and positivity because when you see someone who looks like they have everything together. I don’t know if they do because we’re human. It makes it a lot easier to deal with challenges when you know that everyone has challenges. You’ve talked about yourself going to a therapist. The month of May 2022 is about mental health awareness, which is one of the most important month nomenclatures out there.
I’ve talked at the show about when I was in college and went to a therapist. It was a great growth experience for me. What thoughts can you give to people around taking that? You’ve already said the important point, but then you have to deal with things that are hard. Any other advice? Thank God this has become so much more normative than it used to be, but it’s not normative enough.
In terms of finding a therapist, it’s not only to find someone or anyone because you have to connect with that person. I’ve tried people that I didn’t feel comfortable with, but you have to know that it’s not necessarily the therapy per se. It’s perhaps the person you’ve chosen to share your innermost feelings with. I would encourage people to try someone else, perhaps to be open-minded. It’s not necessarily therapy isn’t for you, but maybe the person isn’t for you.
They go once, and they don’t have a good experience. They’re like, “I’m done.”
If you don’t want to go the traditional route of talking to a therapist, at least talk to your friends. You will be surprised that they’re experiencing the same thing. A lot of it is speaking out loud about what’s bothering you, whether it’s to your parents, your friends, or someone who can be non-judgemental. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not judging the person when they’re unearthing their deepest darkest secrets to you.
It’s listening to them with an open mind and letting them know that you’re there for them. They’re not always necessarily looking for answers. I know myself. Sometimes, I only want to vent. Sometimes, I don’t want someone to tell me what to do. I only want to unload. That’s very important to be an earpiece for someone. Even if you’re not a therapist, you can work wonders for someone.
Stereotypically, I certainly say it’s for myself. Husbands are terrible. Many husbands, including myself, appreciate the importance of, “I want to vent,” and not being solution-oriented because, in business, you want to be solution-oriented all the time. In life and personal relationships, you don’t want to be solution-oriented all the time or almost most of the time. It requires a mental and behavioral shift for a lot of people. I’m not quite where I’d like to be, but I’m starting to get the importance of it. I’m glad you did emphasize that to everyone. It’s important for all people to know, particularly men.
There’s one thing I do want to point out as a parent who had a child who struggles very often because I’m solution-oriented as well. I remember Jack so vividly. I remember that he was wearing a flannel sweatshirt and Timberland boots. I remember him sitting on my kitchen counter. I remember him saying to me, “I’m not happy.” My initial response was, “How are you possibly not happy?”
It is possible for children not to be happy regardless of how much we give them. Not only love. It could be material things. I spent a lot of time looking for that answer to what was making my child unhappy. I wish I had recognized sooner that I was never going to find the answer because it was something that he needed to find within himself and that I couldn’t fix. I couldn’t solve that problem for him. That helplessness as a parent is incredibly hard. There isn’t always a quick fix. Whether it’s therapy, perhaps medication, or they need to take a gap year. You have to be open to it but looking for the problem is not the solution. At least I know that now.
Sometimes, that quick fix is not only not the solution, but it could be the opposite of a solution because people want that quick fix so badly that it could only be a temporary Band-Aid. I’m not anti-medication, but the world quickly jumps to those things. Oftentimes, that isn’t the full solution. It’s a partial solution. Maybe not even the right solution.
I would echo what you’re saying. Oftentimes, it’s not a quick fix, but even if there is a quick fix, it might be the wrong fix. It’s oftentimes a full spectrum of different ways in which one could help an approach and support than one thing. I want to make sure that our audience learns and hears more about Happy Jack’s World and everything you, Jack, your family, and friends have built. Tell us a little more about how you were able to get celebrities involved and how the college ambassador program works. I want hundreds of thousands of people to hear about this even more.
We’re all human, regardless of whether you’re a celebrity, an athlete, or a child. We all experience the same thing. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. A celebrity identifies with what we’re talking about because they’re no different than you and I. I find very often when I go to people, it’s hard for them to say like, “No, I don’t relate. I don’t understand. I’m not going to support what you’re doing,” because you almost have not to have a heartbeat to say like, “I don’t believe in what you’re doing.”
More parents could understand and embrace their kids for who they are, the more of them will be successful.
I lost my son, and I’m trying to help other kids who suffer like him. That’s the bottom line. I feel a sense of responsibility. All of the designs you see on Jack’s site were created by Jack because his outlet was art. Art was his therapy. That is the foundation of everything we sell. We will always donate a portion of our proceeds to help kids. I can’t do that unless we sell the apparel or accessories, so they come hand in hand.
First and foremost, it is a community for kids and parents who forever, even for a moment, ever felt like my son did. To answer your question about how we get celebrities or even the number of college ambassadors, they’re human and feel what it’s like to sometimes be uncomfortable in your skin, even for a moment. It’s a chance for the kids to feel like they’re part of something that’s perhaps bigger than themselves. We’ve gone around to the different college campuses. We’ve hosted events at certain fraternities, whether it’s Ohio, Penn State, Texas, and Maryland.
It’s a celebration of Jack’s life. It’s a nod to the fact that mental illness exists, and we all struggle. We get to donate money at the end of the day. It’s been a great experience. I’m the lucky person I know because I’ve had so much support. We were gifted a pop-up shop at the seaport for months. That doesn’t, and I’m incredibly grateful for all the support. I know that it’s not going to get my son back, but I can try and help other kids. That’s all I can do.
If college student wants to get more involved, where do they go?
It’s HappyJacksWorld.com. We relaunched our new website. We launched a collection in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month called The Cloud Collection. It’s an image that Jack created. Jack used to talk to me a lot about overthinking. It’s like, “How do you get out of your head?” It’s very easy to tell someone, “Stop overthinking.”
It does not help to tell someone to stop overthinking.
With the concept of overthinking, because Jack created this cloud image, we thought like, “Overthinking clouds your wellbeing.” It mucks things up, but he would often say, “I feel like I live in the gray.” That’s okay because there are spots of sun that still shine through the gray and the clouds. The concept of clouds is very prominent within this collection for May 2022. The concept of overthinking runs through the collection for May as well. We hope that we’ve touched upon something that kids can relate to. The feedback so far has been great. I encourage the kids that if they want to get involved, DM us at any time. People will say to me, “I reached out to customer service.” I’m like, “I am customer service.”
This is not a giant enterprise here we’re talking about.
I’m shipping and packing. We have a very lean team. I’m grateful for all the people who have helped, but we’re all trying to do the best that we can. If we should get some angel investors behind us along the way, then that would be awesome. Until then, we’re lean and mean. I read the DMs that the kids write. I answered the emails as best I could. We have a list of kids who want to create events for 2023 at the schools. We are planning that. If anyone wants to become an ambassador, they can reach out. I’ll speak to them on an individual basis. It’s not a blanket email that goes out unless we want to update everybody.
Teenagers and college students are beyond extraordinary. One of the many frustrations, generally, is how people behave. One of them is when people say, “We’re talking about teenagers and college. They’re lazy, me generation, etc.” You see some of the college students you come in contact with, and it blows your mind about their unselfishness, caring, transparency, and communication. It’s probably quite motivating.
I believe some kids are lazy, but so are some adults. These kids are capable of extraordinary things. I’ve witnessed them build Happy Jack’s website. When I couldn’t get out of bed or leave my house, they filled that void that the site needed at that time. I’m grateful for that. I’m a mom, and I feel like these are all my kids. Sometimes, I’m told that I shouldn’t get so invested in their lives because I feel like I want to help everyone, but I can’t help it. As Jack said, it made him feel good to help other people. It does make me feel better to help other people. It’s a part of my own healing.
Many different things that you talked about are applicable to people of all ages, like the importance of going to therapists, seeking out friends, the importance of not necessarily getting caught up in “normal” and not judging things by externals. Any other messages you would want to call out, either for parents of teens in colleges or for individuals themselves? There’s nothing to do with parents that we haven’t hit on yet, but it could be anything you think is an important message.
We will always donate a portion of our proceeds to help kids.
For me, it’s raising not necessarily a child who struggles but even raising a child who doesn’t fit into this perfect little box and wants to be an entrepreneur and do things according to his own plan. As a parent, you have to be willing to allow them that space to succeed or to fail. I can’t say definitively whether Jack would have graduated college. It was important to me, but it wasn’t important to him.
I realized at the end of the day that his happiness mattered more than a piece of paper. If more parents could wrap their minds around the concept of letting their child embrace their true selves and not living out a life that you necessarily have laid out in your mind for them, it’s very important. They’re young. They have their whole lives if they would like to go back to school. I said to Jack, “As long as you can support yourself, you can do whatever makes you happy.”
It didn’t matter to me. I would have liked him to graduate, every parent, inherently. That’s what we want, but it didn’t define my son as being successful in life or not. If more parents could understand and embrace their kids for who they are and what they want to do or be in this life, the more of them would be successful.
It’s a great message. College at eighteen years old isn’t necessarily for everyone. As you said, you want kids to be independent and capable and happy. They have to find the exact right path towards that. We have a rapid-fire section. I still want to do that because you’re an extraordinary person. Your family is an extraordinary family. Jack is an extraordinary individual. Let’s still do it. If you could access a time machine and go back to any point in time, future or present, what do you think you would do?
I mentioned this when Jack sat on my counter wearing that flannel and those Timberland boots. I wish I had sat for a second to understand what that comment meant that he’s not happy. I wish I weren’t as flip about it. I wish I didn’t look for simple answers that perhaps if I had started younger when Jack was younger or had noticed earlier, maybe it could have changed the trajectory, but that’s something that I have to live with. If I can open someone else’s eyes to say, “Sometimes when our kids say they’re not happy, they mean they’re not happy,” it’s not because they didn’t get the new iPhone they wanted. Perhaps it is something deeper. I thought it was the iPhone at that time, and I was wrong. I’d like to go back there.
You’re such a leader now. I wonder if you’ve always been a leader in high school and college. Do you remember the time you were a leader?
I do. When I got into sales, I used to work in advertising for Hearst Publications. It became very natural for me to work with other people. If you identify with whatever product you’re selling and feel it in your heart, it becomes easy to sell. In fact, it’s not a sale at all. My leadership qualities, perhaps the articulation in my voice, come from the years of working in publishing, advertising, and sales.
It’s amazing how transferable some of those capabilities are to a completely different arena that you would never have thought of or hoped for. You’re doing so many amazing things, and you’re impacting so many people’s lives. We always end with this one question. What do you most want to be remembered by?
I want to be a good mom to my daughter and my son and know that I’ve done everything in my power to help them when they can’t help themselves.
I am fully confident that if everyone had a mom like you, the world would be a much better place. Thank you so much for being so open to helping to share what you have. People don’t talk about it enough. People need to hear more voices like yours. It has changed thousands of people’s lives. You don’t even realize or know the impact that you have because a lot of times, you hear about it, but more often than not, you don’t hear about that impact. Know that the vast majority of the time, you do not even hear about that impact. I wanted to thank you.
Thank you. I’m very grateful for you having me. I am.
I’m so glad Bradi was a part of this episode, especially around Mental Health Awareness Month. Many of these takeaways are related to one another. They come down to the fact that it’s so important not to see a certain paradigm as, “This is how I should be. This is how my kids should be. This is how other people should be.” Things go differently than planned. That normal, there is no such thing. Thank you so much for reading. I hope this month and many months ahead are going to be months of growth and connection. Remember, keep connected because life is always better together.
Last modified on May 13, 2022