A Special Encounter: Maria Halphen

© David Ashley Kerr

When I had reached my personal peak of suffering from panic attacks and anxiety, a happenstance brought Maria into my life. A quick lunch in London to discuss the basics and we decided we wanted to give working together a try. A few weeks later I packed my bags for Paris. I wasn’t too sure what to expect from this adventure but I didn’t have anything to lose either.

A few days in and Maria became the incarnation of the person-I-wanna-be-when-I-am-a-grown-up. Her smile, her optimistic nature and her unstoppable belief in her mission cast a spell over me in no time. A few weeks felt like a whole new world and brought encounters to my life I would never want to miss.

What we worked on together in April 2012 was only the start of an idea, a mission, that Maria since then has followed with all her strengths and an army of hard-working helpers, well-known scientists and acclaimed institutions from around the world. The Philippe & Maria Halphen Foundation was founded in 2013. For Maria it all started with an evening sharing memories with an old friend she hadn’t seen for 28 years, and finding out about her on-going struggle with schizophrenia. As she listened to her friend, Maria was devastated by the difficulties faced by those with mental health issues. The women realized that the stigma around mental ill health is an international problem regardless of culture, language, geography or religion.

On the occasion of the Halphen Prize, an annual award which honors research on the pathophysiology of psychiatric disorders, I met Maria again at the Institut de France and had a chance to speak to her about how everything started.

© David Ashley Kerr

“I was happily married for 25 years and when my husband Philippe died I wanted to build something to keep his memory. Philippe was an Auschwitz survivor, so I felt the need to talk about the Second World War and to show my husband’s documentary films from that time. I felt that Philippe’s suffering had to serve a purpose. I showed his films, talked about them, so he wouldn’t be forgotten.

When I went to Australia to be with my mother I reconnected with an old friend, Susie Hincks, who told me about her lifelong suffering from schizophrenia. I was so moved by her story, by her loneliness inside. I have always been fascinated by the brain, I never understood why we go to the moon but we don’t even know ourselves. People with mental disorders look fine, they keep a facade, but you have no idea what is going on inside them.

Then another person came along, Keith Wilson, a former Western Australian Minister of Health, whose son suffers from schizophrenia. Keith will be 80 years old next year, he is taking care of his son, but what is going to happen when he dies? How is it to live with this prospect? Who is going to make sure he is ok? He is not so sick that he has to be locked away but not well enough to manage alone. There is no structure for him.

And so the mind and the brain all of a sudden became really apparent. I slowly realized that trying to keep Philippe’s memory, the memory of the Holocaust, alive, and simultaneously build up a foundation that addresses mental health issues was getting too complicated. I had to make a decision and focus on one of them. I made a choice and never looked back since.

The Philippe & Maria Halphen Foundation is dedicated to the innovation and advancement of knowledge and scientific research in the field of mental illness.

Susie Hincks and I co-founded the charitable organisation Meeting for Minds, dedicated to research of the brain and disorders of the brain, in partnership with people living with mental illness. Meeting for Minds is about bringing everybody together – we are holding forums in Western Australia and are partnering with institutions in France, Australia, Israel, Sweden and Switzerland.

Currently, we are organizing a spring school in Israel where we get young PhD / Post Doc neuroscientists and students in psychiatry together with young people with a lived experience of mental illness to brainstorm on how best to collaborate in research. A similar event will be held in Perth early April 2016. In May 2016 we are holding a “Hackathon,” a marathon for hackers. Running 48 hours they will be given specific problems concerning co-production within science research using the big data. Results of all initiatives will then be presented during our next Forum in May 2016 in Australia.

My dream is that in ten years time Meeting for Minds will be a label of quality, that it is associated with a collaboration between the most prominent researchers, clinicians and people with lived experience of mental illness in mutual respect.”

 

Find out more about the Philippe and Maria Halphen Foundation and Meeting For Minds.

 

After her fashion design studies in Berlin, Lilli Heinemann moved to London where she worked for fashion and art bi-annual Pop Magazine, cult retailer LN-CC and most recently as a PR consultant for brands including Loewe, J.W.Anderson, Marques’Almeida, and A.P.C. In 2015 she relocated to her home town Berlin to get back to her writing roots whilst still consulting for magazines and brands.