Mental illness has a way of taking over people’s lives, of dragging you down to the darkest depths, and worst yet, making you unable to reach out to others when you need help the most. Part of the problem stems from the stigma surrounding the condition, what it means, and how we view others who wrestle with it every day. Project UROK (pronounced “You Are Okay”) wants to change the stories being told about mental illness by letting people who have suffered in silence speak out for once.
I recently talked to Jenny Jaffe, Founder and Executive Director of Project UROK, about the site and how it worked. “I start thinking about it as a web series. I come from the world of comedy. If you want to reach a young audience, you have to bring it to them.” Go on to the website and you’ll see videos from people all over the world talking about their struggles with depression, PTSD, anxiety, and more. You’ll even recognize some of the people there, such as Mara Wilson, Parker Molloy, and Wil Wheaton, as they share their own stories of struggle.
Jenny talked about creating a safe space for people to discuss their lives and share their own stories. On the site, you’ll find all the information you need about uploading videos. Members keep a close eye on the comment section so you know that anything you provide will be a safe community. If you don’t want to show your face, Jenny suggests going anonymous. For her and Project UROK, “It’s important that you are heard in some capacity.” Jenny points that many people come to the site just to watch other people talk, but it never takes long before they are posting their own videos.
Image Credit: ProjectUROK.com
Will open and honest communication be able to put a dent in a problem that affects so many? For Jenny, the answer is that it already has. She told me of a time she went to go to talk to a room full of pre-teen students about mental illness. This is what you would call a “tough room” since image is often everything to this young crowd. When it came time for the question and answer session, Jenny expected no one would want to say anything, but then something amazing happened. “They all wanted to stand up and talk about what they have. One after another, they stood up. ‘Hey, I have this thing.’ And they would applause after each one.” Sometimes you need to be the first to talk about a problem in order to start a movement.
This year, RUOK hits the New York Comic Con stage to talk about their work as well as mental illness. While for some it sounds strange to take the message to such a venue, it makes perfect sense for Jenny to start a conversation in the fan community. “How can [I] represent [mental illness] in pop culture so I don’t feel like the villain,” she begins. “In our news media, the only time we hear mental illness said is in conjunction for a violent crime, and it’s used as an excuse. If we stigmatize and vilify, we further marginalize people who are often the victims of crimes. What we portray in pop culture, we reflect in the world.”
Jenny refers to this as a “warped two-way mirror” where what we see gets distorted and that distortion become reflected in our behavior. Something has to change in this endless cycle if we want people to speak openly about their disease.
Jenny already sees that change happening in small increments. The new 52 relaunch brought back Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, but also as someone who survived trauma. She fights crime as well as her inner demons. As Jenny puts it, “you can still be a hero and fight your own battles.” Hopefully, other comic creators and storytellers will follow suit to show the internal struggle of heroes as well as the ones that happen outside.
When asked about the future of UROK, Jenny had plenty of plans, as well as one that you might find surprising–comedy. She cites Maria Bamford’s standup on OCD as a way that she could relate and feel better about her own struggles. “Comedy is usually the best way to address a delicate situation. There’s a big difference between making fun of something and bringing light to something.” The team over at UROK looks to dive into comedy sketches addressing many of the topics that they already do on the site, and hopefully, start new conversations.
On top of that, they’re looking to translate many of the videos into different languages to help other people around the world and find ways to people in other countries to submit their videos. Diversity is another key goal that UROK is looking to push by bringing in new voices.
If you are looking to help out or lend your own voice to the cause, you can find everything you need at their website. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook or simply tell other people about them. Even a single word can make a big difference when you can help keep the conversation about mental illness going.
Feature Image Source: ProjectUROK.com