Editor’s Note: The content of this interview includes discussion of sexual violence, harassment and suicide. 

Golden Globe and Emmy-nominated actress Ashley Judd is at Elon University today and will deliver the Spring Convocation address at 7 p.m. in Alumni Gym as part of the 2022-23 speaker series

Judd, an activist and humanitarian, is a champion for women’s rights and public health issues. She was one of the most vocal figures of the #MeToo movement and named TIME’s 2017 “Person of the Year.

A graduate of the University of Kentucky, Judd is currently serving as a Global Goodwill Ambassador for UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency.

Elon News Network sat down with Judd for an exclusive one-on-one interview to discuss her career, the challenges she has faced along the way and her advice to college students. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.  

Your acting career has spanned three decades, and you’ve become so involved in activism and humanitarian efforts. How do you use your work and your platform to advocate for others? 

“Well, I appreciate the question. First of all, I understand that Elon sends quite a few graduates to the Peace Corps. And I wanted to join the Peace Corps, and I signed up and I was being sent to Francophone Africa because I speak French, and at the last minute, I stopped calling my recruiter back because I had this equal impulse to give acting a try. I also had this feeling that acting might be a younger woman's game and then if I went to Africa, I might never come home. 

So I switched gears and decided to go to Hollywood to try acting. I thought if it didn't work out I could always go back to the Peace Corps and go back to graduate school for my anthropology degree and all the things that I dreamt of in terms of academic career. When I was preparing to drive to Hollywood with my little U-Haul truck that had white shoe polish on it said ‘Cecil B. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up,’ a family friend said, ‘well, what are you going to do when you get there?’ And I said, ‘Well, I'm going to go to Planned Parenthood and help escort people in who need sexual wellness care and I'm going to’ and I started rattling off all the social justice activities and he said, ‘Where are you going to act? Or to save the world?’

I've always had a deep desire to do both and what I've learned over the years, Miranda, is that it's not a binary, it's not an either or, and that in this life, we really can do multiple things, maybe not all at the same time, which I learned from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. We can have it all, just not at the same time. 

I'm so grateful the way that my higher power has designed and woven my life, that I had the privilege of this acting career, and I also had the honor and privilege of so many organizations like Population Services International, the United Nations agency for sexual and reproductive health, for whom I serve as Goodwill Ambassador — putting their trust and confidence in me, sending me to 22 countries around the world, where I've spent time in brothels and HIV/AIDS hospices, in drop-in centers on the streets, working with vulnerable girls and women about male sexual violence and it's just been the journey of a lifetime, and I absolutely love my life.”

This generation of students spent the majority of its formative years in the #MeToo movement, understanding how to report instances of sexual harassment. What does it mean for you to be speaking to college students and their families today? What do you hope they take away from the talk? 

“Yes, it means so much to me to be here, and I'm very thankful that Elon University invited me. I was just visiting the #MeToo movement website this afternoon, being reminded of how powerful a tool it is. 

On the homepage, it says, I'm here for myself, I want to share my story, I want self-guided resources, I'm under 18, I need legal assistance — it's such a powerful tool. And there's also a banner for I'm here for someone else. I suspect someone I know has been sexually assaulted, I know someone who has been sexually assaulted — and by the way, you do.

To be in community and share about the commonplace reality of sexual violence and how both girls and women can find agency and heal, and how boys and men… this is their issue. This is their problem and we're gonna talk a lot about bystanders tonight, and how both boys and men cannot be so rape-y and also how male bystanders can intervene with each other to absolutely change the trajectory of harassment and assault before it happens.” 

You’ve spoken a lot about how everyone handles grief differently. I read your New York Times op-ed, “The Right to Keep Pain Private,” on press coverage of your mother’s suicide. Can you talk about the significance of this essay for you? 

“Yes, thank you for reading my op-ed in the New York Times. Death by suicide — pictures should not be published, and the details in death by suicide should not be for public consumption. State laws need to be changed in order to protect the privacy of the police report that is gathered and taken at the scene of death by suicide. It serves no public good. It serves as a contagion for those who are vulnerable to suicidality. And this is documented by the great Dr. Madelyn Gould, who is the world's leading expert on suicidality and its contagiousness, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention — the data and evidence are there. 

Our laws need to catch up with this. And the way that families are so bereaved and traumatized in death by suicide is compounded when it becomes a public event. There's no need for it, in multiple ways.

It's been very affirming to have the public so with us and to be so appalled at certain media outlets actually printing the coroner's report pictures of my mother's death by suicide, the contents of the note that she left, which was her disease talking, not her mother's heart. It's good to know that people are with us.”

Your talk tonight is titled ‘Mental Health: What we do not transform in ourselves, we will transfer to others.’ Taking what you’ve learned throughout your own life and through the experiences you’ve had, what advice can you give to students who may be struggling with their own mental health challenges? 

“That's a rich topic, it's a rich vein to mine. Self-care isn't selfish; it is self-esteem. In order to be of service to other people — which I know is something that's so important to the students at Elon, the desire to be of service, the desire to be a good global citizen, to put knowledge into practice — I first have to take care of myself, because I can't transmit what I don't have. 

There's a certain arrogance in thinking I can go be useful to someone if I have, if my own house isn't in order. And so I learned that the hard way because I got really involved with international poverty alleviation and sex trafficking and systems of prostitution with very good intentions and a head full of knowledge, but I wasn't in real recovery yet. 

I still had a lot of my own sexual trauma from child and adulthood to heal from and I was able to make a contribution and do good work, but it also made me sick at times. I would leave a brothel and I would go home and I would vomit and have diarrhea, or I came back from the Congo for the first time and I was flat on my back for three months, completely paralyzed. 

Now my transitions are easy and smooth and I can, I just am more fluid in the work because we uncover, discover and discard and we can compost things more and metabolize things more efficiently when we have a robust spiritual practice and we're in our own recovery. The world is still terrifying and terrorizing and there's the up with which we should not put, but we have to learn how to take care of ourselves first, in order to be of maximum service to God and our families.”

Is there anything you’d like to add? 

“I don't write out my talks, I have a kind of an outline and I speak extemporaneously, and I think tonight we're going to be challenged and very uncomfortable at times. We’re going to talk directly about things that are very awkward and we're also going to talk about solutions, because it's abusive to point out problems without highlighting solutions. 

We're going to be in community and fellowship and talk about mercy and grace and how to hold complexity and navigate difference and celebrate hope and celebrate hope, but we're going to stir the pot a little bit too.”