A New York-based non-profit is harnessing the power of social media and video streaming to ignite a conversation about mental illness among teenagers in the U.S. and abroad.
Project UROK – You Are Okay – is a “mental health destigmatization effort that utilizes YouTube and social media to create fun, informative and inclusive videos for teens and young adults struggling with mental illness, created by adults who have been there before,” said UROK Founder Jenny Jaffe in an interview.
The video streaming site creates and offers video testimonials of the trials and triumphs of young, 13 to 18-year-old people struggling with mental illness, including the obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Jaffe said that what they are creating now is “basically the resource that we wish we had had growing up.”
The idea started as a Web series. But Jaffe said the concept morphed as she realized that a more sustainable effort was needed “until we can create a world where mental illness isn’t a scary thing to talk about.”
All of the people involved in the project are in their 20s, which makes it easier for them to understand their target demographic. All of them have struggled with mental illness – and triumphed.
While openly talking about their trials has been rewarding, UROK Vice President and Production Coordinator Sarah Hartshorne said that just sharing their stories has been helpful to people “because we’re coming from a place where we can really speak to the issues that these kids are going through and having someone say ‘I went through that. I went through it recently, and I’m okay now.’”
Not everybody grappling with mental illness will be able to talk publicly about their experiences. Some might just watch, for the time being. And that’s okay, said Hartshorne, although studies show that isolation is “one of the four leading causes of suicide for teenagers.”
“My feeling,” added Jaffe, “is that probably the people who aren’t commenting, who aren’t sharing the videos, or who aren’t contributing their own content but are watching are the ones who need it most because they are the ones who don’t feel comfortable engaging in a public discussion of mental illness.”
Jaffe’s goal is to put this topic in front of as many kids as possible and “to provide this really solid message that no matter what they’re going through, they’re not alone.”
“There’s a world of people who have been there before and there’s a world of people out there who think their stories are valuable,” she said.
Coming from a family where mental illness was something that all her family members knew and dealt with, Hartshorne said she still felt uncomfortable talking about it in public.
“And I still was really nervous about making my video and releasing it,” she added. “And I think that just speaks to … make that a conversation.”
The response to Project UROK on the Internet and elsewhere has been overwhelmingly positive. Jaffe said the topic “connects to so many people and so many people in the public eye as well,” particularly artists, some of whom have lent their voice to the effort. Among them is Mara Wilson, a New York-based writer, performer, and host of the monthly show “What Are You Afraid Of?”
More than 46 percent of 13-18-year-olds in the United States have a diagnosable mental illness and 1 in 2 teenagers will attempt suicide. Twenty percent suffer from severe mental illness, according to UROK.
Globally, the World Health Organization reports that depression is the top cause of illness and disability among adolescents. Suicide is the third cause of death.
Jaffe wants to engage people all over the world to overcome their stigma and openly discuss mental health issues.
“One of the things that we are definitely looking … to accomplish in the future as we have more money, more resources coming in, is to start going global and having sort of a multi-lingual, multi-national reach,” she said.
After receiving several messages from kids in Argentina, Jaffe said UROK is working hard to meet the demand and provide more content and a wide range of experiences that will be accessible globally.”
Project UROK is also working on a series called “Ask a Doctor” that will let people submit questions for a physician to answer or to be discussed in a blog topic. Hartshorne said the idea is to offer as many avenues as possible for people to contribute and make their voices heard in ways that they’re comfortable with.
“All we can do is provide a platform that will be accessible enough globally that people, no matter who they are, where they’re from, can tell their stories and find stories that they can identify with,” said Jaffe.