Kathy Fields, the inventor of Proactiv, is directing her attention — and her money — to help UF students in an often-private struggle with depression and anxiety
Dr. Kathy Fields has already conquered enough mountains to last a lifetime. The University of Florida alumna has been a successful dermatologist for over 30 years. She co-invented, with Dr. Katie Rodan, the world’s top-selling acne treatment system, Proactiv Solution. Together they co-founded Rodan + Fields, a company that produces the No. 1 skincare brand in the U.S. and Canada. And she raised two sons with her equally successful husband.
Yet, a much larger mountain lays in her sights. Today, she is focusing her passion on two issues: depression and suicide.
“Depression is a dirty little secret,” says Fields (BS ’79). “It is underestimated and underfunded and we want to make a difference – to help people get the help they need.”
Fields admits that depression and suicide are not topics people are eager to discuss. However, national statistics back up her sense of urgency. Suicide is a leading cause of death among college and university students in the United States, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
To combat this epidemic, Fields is focusing her efforts around prevention strategies and programs where high-achieving students live and work: university campuses. She recently gave $50,000 to UF’s Department of Psychology to implement Sources of Strength, a research-proven program that employs the power of caring adults, students’ social networks and peer leaders who utilize their social influence to become change agents in their school communities.
Rather than merely responding to risk factors, warning signs and immediate crises, prevention strategies increase students’ connections within their communities and alter norms around help-seeking and silence. This holistic approach can extend to other issues, such as substance abuse, bullying and dating violence. In addition to Fields’ investment at UF, she has funded similar efforts at Tulane University, one son’s alma mater.
At UF, the pilot program is being led by Dr. Dorothy Espelage, a psychology professor and nationally renowned mental health expert. Armed with her own research on bullying, homophobic teasing, sexual harassment, dating violence, gang violence and other experiences that can prompt suicide attempts, Espelage has spent her career translating findings into prevention and intervention strategies. She serves as an advisor to U.S. Congress and Senate members, the National Institutes of Health and numerous other federal agencies engaged with mental health issues.
I’ve been privileged to change the lives of people not just in my practice, but those literally across the world.
— Kathy Fields —
“Our efforts at UF focus on training mental health first responders, if you will,” Espelage says. The first group of trainees includes 29 students across campus who may be the first to detect a fellow student’s struggle.
“While we certainly would like to increase referrals to the counseling center, the reality is that’s not the answer for people who are serious about harming themselves,” says Espelage. “The answer is equipping people … on the street who can say, ‘I’m really concerned about you’ and ‘I want to talk to you.’ It’s about making that human connection … creating a more supportive environment.”
Fields’ investment in this issue is personal. She has seen bright, motivated young people succumb to daily pressures. After all, for high-achievers in competitive programs, any grade lower than an A is viewed as failure because graduate programs have extremely competitive admissions requirements. Add family pressures and weed-out courses that can derail plans, and students can easily feel – and deeply believe – they are failures.
“I don’t like what’s happening at universities across the country today,” Fields says. “I think there is a rampant hazing system. Some professors are teaching to haze instead of teaching to master.”
Students are indeed suffering. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health reports that one in five students has anxiety and depression. While some are prescribed medication or seek counseling, many don’t receive any assistance.
“The system has got to change,” Fields says. “We’re taking our best and finest and killing them.”
Fields knows what she’s talking about because she and her three siblings experienced those pressures — or “failures” — firsthand. From high school through college, people doubted her abilities and those of her siblings. All four eventually became physicians.
“We got into only one medical school,” Fields says, referring to the University of Miami, “but it only takes one.”
“Some people say I have what I have because I walked right into the top schools and was born wealthy, but that’s not true,” she says. “I’m from nowhere, came from nothing and fought my way through with grit, tenacity and resilience.”
Proactiv owes its existence to a similar strain of perseverance. While Fields was attending Stanford University for a dermatology residency, her program’s chair strongly advised residents to find a specialty within the field or they “would be forever confined to treating zits,” she recalls. That statement later helped Fields and her classmate, Katie Rodan, view that admonition as an entrepreneurial opportunity. Proactiv and their company, Rodan + Fields, followed.
“Your face is the most important real estate you’ll ever own,” Fields says. “If this isn’t OK,” she says, framing her face with her hands, “you can’t enjoy the life you were meant to have … It’s about self-esteem.”
Back then, she says, people with mild to moderate acne had trouble getting treatment. In 1990, insurance regulations blocked patient access to dermatologists without a special referral, leaving millions of people without access to care. Acne can be both physically and emotionally scarring. Over-the-counter acne treatments burned pimples after they formed, a “too-little-too-late approach,” says Fields. That’s why Fields and Rodan felt compelled to find a way to treat pimples and stop new ones from forming through a basic skin care concept: cleanse, tone and moisturize. They added medication to each step while also protecting the skin from dryness and irritation. This paradigm shift in the way acne was treated worked. In the past 23 years, Proactiv has been used by tens of millions of people the world over.
Fields and Rodan started another company in 2008 to improve other common skin conditions brought on by sun damage, sensitivity and aging. Rodan + Fields, which leverages social networks, is now the top-selling skin care brand in North America. Fields is most proud of the economic opportunities that Rodan and Fields provides for hundreds of thousands of women in its sales force.
Fields says she has no plans to retire. She continues to share her knowledge and expertise with residents and patients through her roles an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California-San Francisco and as an Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor at Stanford University’s Department of Dermatology.
While Fields hopes to conquer more mountains during her lifetime, such as education reform and better access and treatments for people with mental illnesses, she measures her personal and professional successes against a simple idea: “I want my life to have mattered,” she says. “I’ve been privileged to change the lives of people not just in my practice, but those literally across the world. But nothing was a straight line. It was an extremely difficult road.”
Fields says encouragement from her family, friends and Rodan, her 30-year business partner, helped her keep going.
“It’s great to be a Florida Gator,” Fields says. “Life is a journey that takes a great deal of resilience. The most important thing is to have a vision and a goal. Your path will be unpredictable, but that’s part of the fun. Your college career is your foundation, but it is just the very, very beginning. There are endless possibilities afterward.”