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Mental Health Awareness Month:

An Interview with Denise Milano Sprung

by Beth Cranford

Mental Health Awareness is a topic about which I am personally very passionate — both as a sufferer of mental illness and as someone who has witnessed the devastation it can cause. Starting in 1949, Mental Health Awareness Month was introduced as a way of communicating the importance of mental health to overall health, and to serve as a reminder that those living with mental illnesses deserve care, recognition, acceptance, and help. It is in that vein that I am thrilled to be able to share today’s post.

Since I became a member of Romancelandia, I have met and spoken with many wonderful people. One of those people is Denise Milano Sprung, who some readers might recognize as one of the women behind Shh Mom’s Reading®. For the past several years, Denise has worked with the book community to raise awareness and money throughout May as part of an annual Book Fundraiser benefiting the Keith Milano Memorial Fund. I reached out to Denise to ask a series of questions about the fundraiser, how it came into being, and the importance of breaking the stigma surrounding mental health.

Read on to learn more about Denise, the Keith Milano Memorial Fund, and ways you can help make this May the most visible and successful Mental Health Awareness Month yet.

First things first, congratulations on (and speaking as someone who battles mental illness, thank you for) the 9th Annual Mental Health Awareness Book Fundraiser. After nine years of running this event, you must have the planning down to a fine art! How much has the event changed since you first began hosting it in May of 2013?

My first thought in reading this question is that I’m running out of ways to say thank you…

The event is still very much what it was when Katie Ashley first approached me with the idea: authors donating a portion of May book sales to the Keith Milano Memorial Fund at The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The fundraiser is all about the books. What initially led you toward the idea of using romance books as a way of raising money for mental health awareness? Is there something you know now that you wish you’d known when you first launched this fundraiser?

The event wasn’t so much launched as it was an organic evolution of me sharing Keith’s story and struggle openly. At the time, Katie Ashley was releasing a novella as a thank you to readers for hitting the New York Times Bestsellers list. Amazon didn’t really allow free [books], so Katie put her book up for 99 cents and reached out to me to ask if she could donate the profits to Keith’s Fund. I was beyond touched, I said yes and then asked how I could help!

That first year, my help came in the way of promotion. I shared Katie’s donation in honor of Mental Health Awareness and, in what was a huge surprise to me, authors who I had read and reviewed on Shh Mom’s Reading® proactively reached out to me to ask “can I be invited to the Mental Health Awareness Book Fundraiser?” I let them know I did not organize it, but they were more than welcome to join…

That first year I think we ended up with 12 authors and raising just over $14,000; all authors I had read prior.

Have you discovered any favorite books or one-click authors through this event over the years? (Based on the participants in years past, I’m going to guess yes!)

The first few years the authors who supported the event were all authors I had read. There is a trust factor required in the sense that we have to know the author will donate at the end. Over time authors I adore — and trust — referred other authors to the event. So yes, I have discovered new-to-me authors. The first Sierra Simone book I read was because of her involvement with the event.

Aside from the books, have you experienced any heart-warming or feel-good moments born of this event that you’d like to share with us?

There are so many heartwarming moments. The one that will always be top of my mind is that this community has allowed me to keep my promise to Keith. He didn’t go quietly. Over 15 years later, people know his name and there is awareness in his name. And there are also books, written by people who never got to meet him, dedicated to him.

Bringing an event like this together requires a lot of assistance from Romancelandia—from the authors who participate, to the bloggers who share and the readers who purchase the books in support. Are you surprised by the way our community rallies around this cause?

We have been humbled by the support of Romancelandia and are so proud that they stand with us in Keith’s name to raise awareness about mental health and work to change the dialogue around the disease.

For those who may not be in a position to purchase the participating books this year, but still want to contribute to the fundraiser, can you share some other ways they can help?

SHARING and commenting… sharing and commenting some more!!!! Each author will get their own post on Shh Mom’s Reading®’s Instagram and Facebook. Many bloggers will share the promo information as will the authors. The more people share and comment, the more it will trend. Also creating a post with a link, sharing why their mental health is important (again with a link) can help! I have always felt the best way to show my gratitude for the generosity of these authors is to get them as many eyes as possible on their books.

The Keith Milano Memorial Fund was established by Denise to raise awareness about mental illness.

You’ve worked tirelessly over the years to raise awareness for the often silent and crippling disease that is mental illness, in the hopes of breaking the stigma that makes it difficult for people to speak up and share their experiences. Have you — do you — feel the tide turning on that front?

Things are so different than they were 20 years ago; Keith never saw people who got “better,” now many more share their stories of living with mental illness. I feel like this would have helped with so much. In terms of numbers, of hard data, I would encourage people to listen to the Mitlin Money Mindset™ on May 5th as my husband’s interview with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Christine Moutier goes live.

The past year has undoubtedly taken a toll on those already battling mental illness, and, because of the unique circumstances, it’s also had a major impact on society as a whole. Once COVID is over, do you think that this shared experience will change the way people view mental illness and care?

My hope is that from these trying times will come a deeper understanding of the need to embrace mental health is part of overall health. I do think it will take people continuing to speak openly for this to become a thing of the past.

The Keith Milano Memorial Fund benefits the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Can you tell me some of the things that you’ve accomplished thus far, and what you hope to accomplish in the years to come?

The most amazing accomplishment has been the people we have directly helped; over the years people have used Larry and I as resources — sometimes it is just to talk or sometimes it has been for resources. We know for fact we have made an impact and that means so much. When we first started out, we said that if Keith’s story saves just one life, then it is worth sharing his truth, but we already know we have saved dozens. We hope to continue to change the dialogue around mental health. And to normalize the conversation.

One last question: if you could tell someone suffering from mental illness one thing, what would you say?

People need to know it is okay to seize that awkward moment… asking someone if they are OK or asking if someone thinks they might harm themselves are questions you can and should ask if you think someone is suffering.

I hope you will support the authors who are taking part in the event; if you have read a great book in the event, comment on the post about your love of the book or gift it to a friend; if you see a new-to-you author, give it a #1click4charity; if you can afford a book this month please comment in the posts and share!

I want to close just as I started by saying thank you just doesn’t seem like enough… so I am going to close this just as I sign my email that goes to participating authors, With Deepest Gratitude, Denise Milano Sprung

Participating Books:

Click on the covers to take a look at each of the books participating in the 9th Annual Mental Health Awareness Month Book Fundraiser benefiting the Keith Milano Memorial Fund. Books bordered by GREEN have multiple titles in the series participating, so make sure to snap them up for a good cause #1Click4Charity. Have any questions? Feel free to contact me at beth@bookandmain.com or visit the Keith Milano Memorial Fund website for more info.

Keep an eye on our social media platforms this month as we share more about the books and authors participating in the 9th Annual Mental Health Awareness Month Book Fundraiser.

About Beth

Beth Cranford was born and raised in Australia, but followed her heart (and her husband) to the United States in her late 20s. As the mother of two kids, she’s learned that you can turn anything into a song and that slime does not belong in carpeted areas (or polite society). You can most often find her with her Kindle in hand, listening to Taylor Swift on repeat, or spending way too many hours playing Animal Crossing.

Follow her @BethCranford on B+M Bites.

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