Julie K. Hersh

Struck By Living


Intrinsic Motivation: The Missing Link in Mental Health Care

Can a sense of fun increase the effectiveness of suicide prevention?

Posted Apr 30, 2014

Recently, I did something that caused more awareness about suicide prevention in a week than anything I’ve done in the past four years. Strangely enough, it happened completely by accident.

Last month I wrote the blog “An Ounce of Prevention,” inspired by Andy Nguyen President of the non-profit Honor Courage and Commitment. As mentioned in the blog, I dropped to the floor to give Andy 22 push-ups to honor those who serve and as a reminder of the 22 veterans per day that die by suicide. Andy videoed my pushups (done in a dress with black boots) and posted the video on the Honor Courage and Commitment (HCC) Facebook page. Being the shy type I am, I posted this video on my Struck by Living FB page too.

My son, Daniel, a freshman at Northwestern, happened to see my push-up video. He dubbed them “lame” (according to my sister-in-law). In a moment of playful spite, I posted my video on Daniel’s FB with a challenge. Find any woman who can match my push-ups, video it and post it, and I will make a contribution to HCC in her name.

Daniel ignored the post. As any user of FB knows, the only thing worse than your mother posting on your FB is actually acknowledging the post. Strangely enough, however, videos of women pumping out 22 began to fill my page. In another playful gesture I suggested to Andy Nguyen that we up the bet. We opened the challenge to men and women. I offered $100 for any person videotaped and posted doing 22 push-ups up within about 24 hours (up to $10,000). That goal was easily surpassed.

3rd Force Reconnaissance Company takes our challenge

The results were astounding. Over 3,117 people from around the globe participated in a week, highlights of which can be seen in this video. The videos have continued to pour in even after our financial challenge, and we hope to top 10,000 people doing push ups by the time we have the check presentation in June. As of the publication of this article, 3605 people have participated. People, excuse the pun, are pumped.

Not only are people doing push-ups, they are talking about the issue of suicide in an engaged way. After I led a group doing 22 push-ups at the Cooper Aerobics Center, I overheard several conversations as I left the building. Did you realize these numbers were so high? This is crazy! We need to do something about this! And guess what? These conversations were self-propelled. The push-up initiative acted as a catalyst, but the idea caught fire.

4 year old Andrew happily pushes out 22

This experience left me dumbfounded. I’ve treated the issue of suicide very seriously over the past four years. I published a book, did lots of research, and have given talks in a respectful way about this topic. Why did people jump to action to do push-ups, when I had to arm-wrestle them to attend one of my talks?

Listening to Dan Pink’s TED talk on the Intrinsic Motivation, I think I now understand why the push-ups worked. Pink cites three things that motivate human performance: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. For complex tasks, these three factors motivate more than money. Pink’s lecture talks about business, but Intrinsic Motivation has a place in mental health as well.

As I look back on this crazy push-up week, I believe the reason this idea worked was because we accidentally employed Intrinsic Motivation. People had autonomy to do their push ups solo or in a group at any time or place they preferred.

These women included a "friend" of theirs

I am very excited about the recent trend to be open about depression and suicide attempts as described in the New York Times article “Suicide Prevention Sheds a Longstanding Taboo: Talking About Attempts” . Unfortunately, the media tends to be attracted to the gloomy, sensational or grim stories of suicide attempts, but often forgets to mention the most important part of the story: how to stay well or manage mental illness.

Outside of people who were impacted by suicide or mental health professionals, my guess is this article did not get the readership it deserves. Why? Coming out about suicide is great, but is only the prologue to vital information about survival. The perhaps most helpful information was left as a question as the last line of the article: “What did family and friends and doctors do that helped, and what did not?”

If we want people to take constructive action about mental illness and suicide, we have to give them a path to follow.

Texas A&M Corps of Cadets gathers to show support

The news media may not be aware of a target market of millions who care deeply about a headline like that. As someone who has successfully managed depression for over a decade, I can assure you. That headline will turn people on.

As for our challenge, Daniel finally did his 22 push-ups. After about 2,000 videos and no sign of Daniel, I deployed operation Peer Pressure. I called the moms of his best friends and asked them to get their sons to do push-ups. Once pal Danny Koudelka did his 22, I got a text from Daniel with his video, in about 22 seconds. Have to admit, his form was pretty damn good.


If you would like to take part in the 22 push-up initiative, video yourself or your group doing 22 push-ups and post on Honor Courage Commitmen's Facebook page with the hashtag  #22KILL or email the video to support@veteran.me. We are trying to surpass 10,000 people doing 22 by June 15 so we can announce that number at a Texas Ranger's home game at the end of June. Join in the action!

For more information about Julie K Hersh check out the Struck by Living website.