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In this episode, television producer Joel Relampagos discusses the intersectionality of his identities — Asian American, former addict, and gay man — and how the wave of hate crimes against Asian people has impacted him and his community. We discuss his latest project, which was developed to stop Asian hate, titled “Recipe for Change,” featuring interviews with luminaries Michelle Kwan, BD Wong, and Lisa Ling.
Joel was born in Manila, Philippines, and immigrated to America on his 6th birthday. At age 19, Joel opened up about his sexuality on MTV’s “True Life: I’m Coming Out.” Since that time, he has become a prominent Hollywood producer, producing such shows as “The Biggest Loser” and “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Joel Relampagos was born in Manila, Philippines, and immigrated to America on his 6th birthday. At age 19, Joel opened up about his sexuality on MTV’s True Life: I’m Coming Out. After national recognition from the LGBTQ+ and AAPI communities, Joel decided to pursue a career in entertainment.
He has been the executive producer on shows such as FOX’s Hell’s Kitchen, NBC’s The Biggest Loser, ABC’s Boy Band, and, most recently, YouTube Originals’ special on Stop Asian Hate titled Recipe for Change. In his early 30s, Joel battled depression, anxiety, and alcohol addiction. A stay at an inpatient rehabilitation facility not only helped Joel recover from his struggles with addiction but also inspired him to launch a free mental health program called Change Your Algorithm. “CYA” offers its services online at changealgorithm.com, where mental health classes are led by certified therapists.
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer-generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast, I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to quickly thank our sponsor, Better Help. You can grab a week free just by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. Calling into the show today, we have Joel Relampagos. At the age of 19, Joel opened up about his sexuality on MTV’s True Life: I’m Coming Out. Now a producer, Joel has produced shows such as Fox’s Hell’s Kitchen and NBC’s The Biggest Loser. Recently, Joel helped launch a free mental health program called Change Your Algorithm, which has been featured on Fox, ABC, Forbes and now on Inside Mental Health. Joel, welcome to the show.
Joel Relampagos: Hello, hello. Thank you so much for having me. I am absolutely honored.
Gabe Howard: Now, Joel, you’re a Filipino American, and lately we’ve heard a lot about Asian hate crimes. I imagine if you have no mental illness whatsoever, being a member of the AAPI community is, it’s got to be scary. You know, as a white male, all I can say is how it looks. What has that done for your mental health? And as much as you can speak on it, the collective mental health of your community?
Joel Relampagos: It’s interesting because I always tell people that it’s basically rational, emotive behavioral therapy, it’s not activating events that cause our emotions. It is our beliefs about an event that causes our emotions. At first, I became really sad about what was happening because it’s just so insane to me that people are out there harming other people because of their race. I can’t even fathom that. That, to me was causing me stress and even depression. I then realized, OK, what is my belief going to be about this? And I’m going to do something about this. I found myself being the most proud I’ve ever been about my race, the most proud I’ve ever been, about solidarity within the API community. And now I’m at a point where I want to be able to do my part as a Filipino American to make Asians visible, to amplify voices and to represent them accurately, to let people know that we are just like everybody else. I’m honored because the last show I did was for YouTube Originals, and it was called Recipe for Change. It has 21 celebrities, activists, influencers, and they’re all talking about the heinous crimes that are going on out there and what we can do to make a difference.
Gabe Howard: What is one thing that you took away from all of their stories? Because I know for me, one of the things that I took away is that there’s no escaping this. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, how hard you work, whether or not you’re rich, famous, it’s a real devastating issue to people’s mental health.
Joel Relampagos: So the one thing that I’ve taken away from this is that there is a model minority myth out there. As Asian-Americans, many people believe that we’re always going to be polite and we keep our heads down and we’re the minority that, like a lot of people should be looking up to because they’re successful. And truthfully, it’s like, again, it’s a gigantic stereotype. The fact that Lisa Ling was on the show talking about internalized racism, I was like, oh, my gosh, that was me. I used to not want to be my race. And I just want, I just used to want to be a white person when I was a kid so I can feel accepted. And then when you have Chef Melissa King talking about how her parents never said she loved her, but they showed it in different ways, such as the food they would make, I was like, oh, my gosh, that was me. I was never really told that people were proud of me or that they loved me, but I certainly got it in different ways. And it was so interesting to hear because there’s not a lot of API content out there. And again, back to my mission of making people not feel alone. I didn’t feel alone when I heard these people who are very different from me. Yes, we’re of the same race. But someone’s a chef. Someone’s a journalist, someone’s an activist, someone. . . It’s so cool to see. And these stories just aren’t being told. And again, the more we talk about things, the less people feel alone.
Gabe Howard: But when the former president started blaming things on on the Asian community, it’s just how can you blame all the people of a single country? I mean, for one, it not even proven. And two, even if it is true, like really? Like the citizens are now responsible for the behavior of their government? There’s two really big problems there. And also it’s just, it’s just mean.
Joel Relampagos: Oh, my gosh. I know it is awful, it’s awful.
Gabe Howard: It yeah, it.
Joel Relampagos: And I don’t use the word crazy, but it is [bleep] crazy.
Gabe Howard: Oh, it’s it’s we, I live in Columbus, Ohio, central Ohio, you know, we’ve got about two million people I think were the 14th largest city, you know, so we’re a big city, but we don’t have the, you know, the oomph of, like San Francisco, New York. But in the beginning, we did close down restaurants. But you were able to be open for carry outs. And a lot of the Chinese restaurants that, frankly, make the majority of their money off carry out anyway went ahead and closed anyways because they couldn’t tolerate, you know, the nasty phone calls. And
Joel Relampagos: Wow.
Gabe Howard: They had a lot of problems. And I thought, wow, they had this, you know, probably this silver lining, an opportunity to sort of do more business because they’re so centered around carryout. And Dynan was closed and they made the decision to close for a few months. And that really tells me it had to be really bad for a business owner to turn away profits because of what’s happening. That is an indicator to me that this was much more serious than I think we understand we being like
Joel Relampagos: Absolutely.
Gabe Howard: The general public.
Joel Relampagos: That’s right.
Gabe Howard: So but it’s just sad. It’s just.
Joel Relampagos: It is. It is sad and I hope that people understand just how idiotic it really is, honestly, because I just like seeing analogies. It’s like the principal of the school telling all the kids that, like all these people are sick because of all Asian students, like, what the hell?
Gabe Howard: Right.
Joel Relampagos: You know, and the kids are going to listen because they’re like, we’ll use the principal. And so let’s hate all Asian students is basically that. And it’s shocking. And the fact that it’s like not even like bullying, it’s like stabbing and punching and pushing down the stairs and murder. And what
Gabe Howard: Yeah.
Joel Relampagos: It’s shocking.
Gabe Howard: There’s so much that could be said, but the one thing that I thought about is like, America is so great, right? Like we’ve never unleashed hell on the rest of the world? We pollute. We dump stuff into the oceans. I mean, we, stuff has been traced back to America that’s went worldwide. We’re like huge polluters. And we’re like, no, no. We’re the good ones. I just. Yeah.
Joel Relampagos: Oh, oh, it’s awful.
Gabe Howard: Yeah.
Joel Relampagos: But no I totally understand.
Gabe Howard: Joel, in reading up on you for research for the show, I read this interesting article that pointed out that you are also openly gay. So you are not part of one marginalized community., you are part of multiple marginalized communities. And, of course, mental health, mental illness is also a marginalized community. How does that impact you? That has to be an incredible amount of pressure on your mental health.
Joel Relampagos: Yeah, I dealt with a lot of shame growing up and shame really impacts mental health, going from an immigrant, moving to Southern California when I was six, to be in the closet and really struggling with my sexual orientation to having to deal with the parental expectations of being a doctor. And I didn’t want to be a doctor. There’s a lot of shame that I kept down inside and I used to truthfully hate myself. Now that I have been able to really understand each of us, we have nothing to be ashamed of. We’re so beautiful just the way we are. There’s no such thing as perfect and everyone is supposed to be different. It’s so beautiful when I understand that and to know that these are the things that I used to be ashamed of and now I’m so grateful that I am these things is really empowering and I want people to experience that. I love the fact that I am Filipino American. I love the fact that I am a gay male. What if all these things that you thought was broken about you is actually not? And what if those places where you thought you’re broken was the same places where you’re actually really strong from?
Gabe Howard: Joel, how important is it to have a sense of community? Did you personally have trouble finding that community?
Joel Relampagos: You know what’s so interesting was that I am also sober, so when I was going through the peak of my depression, anxiety and addiction, I pulled myself out of entertainment and I checked myself into rehab. And then once I left rehab, I started to go to recovery groups. And these recovery groups were mainly about addiction. And then I looked around and I was like, where is this, but for mental health? And so I wanted to create a community where people just understand that we’re all recovering from something, whether it’s addiction, relationships, loss of a job, loss of a loved one, traumas. We’re all going through it and that’s OK. And I think that when we have that misconception that life is always going to be perfect and we’re always supposed to be happy, when those bad days happen, then we go, whoa, why is this happening? So I wanted to be able to create that community because I had the community so strongly within recovery from addiction. I had that so well and I still have that. But I wanted to make sure that other people have that simply when it comes to mental health, because when we are connected to each other in a community and we come to each other when the other person needs help, when the other person needs support, because especially in a time of fear and uncertainty where so many people, all of us were told to be physically apart from each other now more than ever is when we need community. When you hear things like the United Nations saying that we’re in a mental health pandemic, now more than ever, we need community because that’s how we stay connected. This is the time to really talk about what it is that we’re going through so that we can help change and save other people’s lives. And we can only find that within community.
Gabe Howard: It’s interesting that you brought up the mental health pandemic, the impact of the pandemic on our mental health has caused a secondary problem, and this is largely seen through the eyes of white middle class. Not entirely, but largely. How has that impacted your community, the Filipino Americans, Asians, AAPI? Because it’s very different in marginalized communities, the access to care. It’s very different in marginalized communities accessing care before there was a global pandemic. So I can only imagine that it’s worse now. And as we’ve been discussing, there’s so much more to consider.
Joel Relampagos: Oh, my gosh, such a great question. Growing up, we did not talk about mental health in my household. We were told to really not to speak about our emotions. It was just more about how things look on paper. Instead of talking about mindfulness, it was more about like what grade did you get in your math class? And so, you know, the API community is three times less likely to ask for mental health support than white Americans. And so there is no coincidence that in a community where, you know, mental health is taboo, if you look at suicide rates, there’s a lot of Asian countries that fall at the top of that list. That is our culture. But just because that that has been our culture doesn’t mean that we can’t break the cycle, Breaking the cycle, breaking the stigma, breaking the stereotypes, all of that, because we’re just like everybody else. There’s no such thing as doing something on your own. You just asked about community. And when it comes to the API community, it’s OK to be able to ask for help. And I want people to understand that it does not make you weak. It does not make you weak. It actually shows just how strong you are.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after these messages.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Hollywood executive producer Joel Relampagos. Joel, you worked on The Biggest Loser for 10 years, and I would absolutely be remiss if I had you on the show and I didn’t ask about The Biggest Loser. What was that whole experience like? Because, you know, many people talk about the eating disorders that many of the contestants have. And I know you talked about how you used, you know, drugs and alcohol to mask mental health issues. And I do think there’s probably a commonality in there. Was that difficult for you? What did you see? I’m just asking your opinion about sort of the combined mental health struggle of you and the contestants that you worked with.
Joel Relampagos: Yeah, it really just proves that everything starts with the mind, the contestants on The Biggest Loser, they weren’t on the show just because they love the flavor of pizzas and burgers. They were there because they were telling themselves something. And then food became their comfort, food became their coping skill. There’s nothing good or bad with food. It’s whatever we make it out to be. The contestants on the show had this relationship with food where it was filling up this void where they felt like they were so empty and a lot of the contestants felt like they had that sense of unworthiness. They felt like they had that trauma that they never healed from. They felt like they had that relationship that they could never have. And then food became all of that. And so what happened was they got onto the show and yes, there was a lot of working out and a lot of eating. Right. But a lot of it was being able to work with the psychological aspect of the relationship with food. And it really came into play once I started to have my own addiction, not with food, but with alcohol. You know where I went, holy smokes. This is what the contestants went through? You know, and that was, to be honest, a very, very inspirational thing for me when I was in treatment. Dealing with my own addictions and I really had to reflect. And the last thing that I really wanted to do for years of my life was to be able to sit with my emotions. And that’s what we did with the biggest loser contestants. We had them sit with their emotions and go, OK, who are you really? And how are you coping with the obstacles that life throws at you?
Gabe Howard: You know, Joel, I live with bipolar disorder, and I know deep down that the only reason I’m a mental health advocate is because of my own personal experience. It’s not an uncommon story. Is your connection the same? I guess ultimately what I’m asking is why is a Hollywood producer interested in helping people with mental illness?
Joel Relampagos: It’s such a great question and yes, like you, this is personal for me. I went through very severe depression, anxiety and years of addiction to alcohol because of it. You know, it wasn’t just a drinking problem, it was a problem that I was treating with drinking. Once I became better, and when I recovered from that, I wanted to make sure that other people were aware that they’re not alone in this world.
Gabe Howard: Tell us a little bit about exactly what Change Your Algorithm is, it sounds like what Congress is trying to do to Facebook right?
Joel Relampagos: [Laughter] Yeah, it is, it is. Basically, Change Your Algorithm is a free mental wellness program with certified mental health professionals that volunteer their time to help anyone and everyone. And the reason why I call it Change Your Algorithm is because I really want people to have hope. You know, we all abide by the, quote/unquote algorithms that we have. Right? For me anyway, I used to tell myself I’m always going to be depressed and always going to be addicted. I’m always going to be anxious. But truthfully, there are ways and tools and skills that we can learn through certified mental health professionals that can help us change the algorithm of our lives. It comes down to our belief system, how we’re healing from traumas and the stories that we’re telling ourselves. And once I change that story, the algorithm of my life completely changed.
Gabe Howard: Now, as I understand it, Change Your Algorithm is 100% free, correct?
Joel Relampagos: It’s 100% free. I spent thousands of dollars when I was in treatment, and while I was very grateful for my experience, I wanted people to have the experience, but without having to spend a single penny so that they can save their own life. I was very fortunate. I truly saved my life because I have a better understanding of how my mind works and I want people to experience that with zero dollars.
Gabe Howard: That is incredibly awesome.
Joel Relampagos: Basically, I used to tell myself all of these negative things, these false negative beliefs that I carried with me for years of my life, which is I’m not good enough and unworthy of love. I’m undeserving of all these great things. Despite the success, money, shows, deep down inside, I felt like I wasn’t enough. So that was my software, if you will. That’s how I programed myself to believe that this is how I’m going to function in this world. So that became my algorithm and I created the program, Change Your Algorithm and called it that, because like all things tech, you know, let’s say our phones, we sleep to recharge. We look for connections. We can store a ton of data, but when phones, you know, malfunction, they can reprogram themselves, our human malfunctions, are anxiety, depression, addiction, the sense of unworthiness. But we forget that we can reprogram ourselves. And so that’s what I had to do. I had to work on upgrading my system. None of us are using Windows 97 on our laptop anymore. If we were, our laptop would probably not be functioning as well as it could be. And that’s basically what happened to me, that I was working off of this old software, old program and it was affecting my life. And so that’s what I had to do. I had to make a mental upgrade.
Gabe Howard: When we talk about changing our algorithm, it sounds so simple, you use the example of just upgrading software and many of us, we just hit the update button. We come back two hours later and poof, everything is resolved. I imagine that it’s not that simple. And I want to give you an opportunity to talk about that because I don’t want anybody to hear, oh, this guy’s just selling magic beans.
Joel Relampagos: Right, right, right, exactly. What it took for me to change that negative self-belief that I had was to be able to seek therapy, to ask for help. And then I learned about things such as how the subconscious mind works versus the conscious mind and how my traumas are not my fault, how all of my emotions are actually valid. And I’m not to be ashamed of them and how I’m the observer of my thoughts. That was a big lesson for me to learn how I can observe my thoughts and not actually just be my thoughts. To be able to learn things like that and practicing how to set boundaries, how to find forgiveness, how to use gratitude in my life was a game changer. And the fact that I didn’t know these things, I could certainly run any TV show, but the fact that I didn’t even know what mindfulness was shocking to me. And that’s why me as an executive producer, I’m using my skills to be able to use media and whatever sources I have in entertainment to show people that mental health is something that we should be talking about. The more we talk about it, the less people feel alone.
Gabe Howard: Oh, I love that and where can our listeners find Change Your Algorithm?
Joel Relampagos: Listeners can find Change Your Algorithm at our website, which is ChangeAlgorithm.com, and you can also go to our Instagram, which is @Change Algorithm. And we also have a YouTube channel, if you type Change Your Algorithm. But for free mental health support led by certified mental health professionals that volunteer their time, you can go to the website, which is ChangeAlgorithm.com.
Gabe Howard: Joel, thank you so much for being here.
Joel Relampagos: Thank you so much, Gabe, I had a blast. And thank you for raising awareness.
Gabe Howard: Oh, you’re very welcome. Is there anything else you would like to share with our audience?
Joel Relampagos: No, Gabe, you’re amazing, you’re such a great interviewer.
Gabe Howard: Aww, thank you, now, I got to find a way to include that in the final product. That’s a note for my editor and producer. All compliments must make it into the show.
Joel Relampagos: Yeah, you should include it.
Gabe Howard: Joel, you are awesome, thank you so much for agreeing to do this. I really appreciate it.
Joel Relampagos: I love it, and this absolutely, let’s stay in touch. Thank you so much.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome. And to all of our listeners, thank you so much for being here. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations.” And I’m also a nationally recognized public speaker who would love to be at your next event. You can, of course, get my book on Amazon or you can get a signed copy with free swag or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please follow or subscribe to the show. It’s absolutely free and also tell a friend. Share us on social media, send an email, you know, call up that long lost person and say, hey, you should be listening to this podcast. And I will see everybody next Thursday here on Inside Mental Health.
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