Interview: Jenny Jaffe And Sarah Hartshorne Of Project UROK
If there is one thing in the world that I’m truly passionate about it is mental health. I have always tried to be fairly open with my own struggles with depression and various other ticks, but it is still a subject that makes people very uncomfortable. The idea of being diagnosed with some sort of mental illness still comes with a stigma that can be very damning if someone doesn’t understand what the other person is going through. It was just before San Diego Comic Con that I got an email from a group I hadn’t heard of called Project UROK for an interview. I was very interested in this new website that was relying a lot on social media and Youtube to give young people a safe place to go as they deal with mental illness. The interview itself was nearly forty minutes long and I would love to just post the entire thing because it was such a great discussion, but there is a lot of background noise (because we were on a roof).
After revealing that I was, ironically, anxious about the interview since it was only the second one I had ever done, I sat down with founder Jenny Jaffe and vice president Sarah Hartshorne to talk about the organization and why they were at Comic Con.
WPR: What motivated you to start the program?
Jenny Jaffe: I struggle with mental illness is the best answer. I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety with panic disorder and OCD and depression. From the time when I was super little kid I was dealing with those things. So it’s always been in the back of my head that this was something I wanted to work in or work on. The reason I got into comedy is I wanted to help cheer people up the way that comedy really helped me survive for such a long time. And because comedians are the only people I ever heard talk about the things I was struggling with. A bunch of things sort of came together that pointed toward that this is something I should do. The show I was writing for was canceled and I was really floating around trying to figure out what my next move would be. I just felt not right in the things I was doing and I had only ever really done comedy and I didn’t really have a Plan B. I don’t know what else I’m doing. I wrote this article for XO Jane about going to exposure therapy for a fear of throwing up and the response was just so amazing. I was like “oh, it’s because no one ever talks openly about this stuff”. So I did a lot of research for what exists out there and there really wasn’t anything that was a destigmazation effort that was done through social media and through Youtube because those communities exists. Like tumblr, speaking of things for nerd communities, tumblr is amazing for it. The thing is teenagers are super resourceful and they’ve created these communities of support for themselves. The problem is their unmonitored and they are teenagers so mixed in with all the amazing support are people encouraging self harm, people encouraging eating disorders. It just seemed like a good way to harness what was already happening. There have been studies done about naturally occurring peer support on Youtube and people already creating these videos. So all we’re doing is creating the kind of communities that are already out there and doing it in a way where we have mental health professionals on board, we have people monitoring comments to make sure no one gets any mean comments. We’re just trying to…
WPR: To create as safe of an environment as possible on the internet.
Jaffe: Exactly and that’s really hard and we’ve put a lot of work into it. You can never protect yourself fully, or anyone, on the internet and it’s kind of a scary place. We’re trying to, what I’m trying to do, is create the kind of community I would have wanted as a kid. And trying to do it in a way that is fun and not patronizing because everyone on out staff has dealt with a variety of issues as well and very open about it. It’s not just people saying “here’s what you should do” it’s “here’s what I did” and encouraging people to seek professional help.
WPR: Yeah, because it’s one thing to hear “just go to the doctor and you’ll be better”. It’s another to say “I went through this. Medication is throwing a dart and hoping you hit the right one. It takes forever to find the right one.”
Jaffe: For fourteen years I’ve been adjusting my medication. It’s such an ongoing process and we’re not lying to anyone by saying one day you’re going to recover. It’s a chronic illness and you’re going to struggle with it for forever but the good days will outweigh the bad days and it’s going to be worth it. I’m really glad every day that I’m still here. That’s the message I’m trying to put out there. You want to stick around to see what happens next. If you wake up in the morning? You’re doing great. If you woke up this morning? That’s awesome and anything you do is icing on the cake. It’s so true! Like all four of us got out of bed, we got dressed, we got on a roof, we’re in San Diego! Do you guys know how amazing it is to be alive? I’m so impressed with existing.
Sarah Hartshorne: I got sat on!
Jaffe: You did get sat on!
Hartshorne: Right on my shoulder just blop. A little butt bird.
Jaffe: I feel like anytime I start to feel pessimistic I remember all the times I haven’t been murdered and that’s good. That’s my very realist way of approaching optimism.
Hartshorne: That’s actually something that has been very intense for me. I was diagnosed with PTSD and [this is] one of the things in the past year? It’s been recent.
Jaffe: It’s been so recent.
Hartshorne: Yeah, it’s obviously something I’ve been dealing with for a long time. There have been a lot of diagnoses – they thought it was OCD, they thought that maybe it wasn’t just anxiety – there has just been a lot of back and forth. Then finally when I got this diagnoses I went “oh my god, this makes sense, this is something I can with. This is something that I can see myself in this”. It was such a relief and then I felt incredibly guilty. I was like “no, I don’t deserve that” but one of the biggest things that I’ve been working on in therapy is being present in your own body which does not come naturally. My instincts are to be in my own head, to hide in this nether world, so being present and being here has been scary sometimes. I’m biking in New York, to work, and I’ve never realized how horrifying that is because I was kind of on this weird autopilot. Just being in a body, being like “this is impressive that we deal with this all the time”. That our brains are amazing even if your brain is telling you all these things, telling you you’re awful and that you don’t deserve things, it’s also making you breath in and out. And still letting you know that something is hot or cold at any moment and I’ve just been so appreciative of the human body and everything that it does. That’s something that has been really helpful for me. I’ve got neurons that are still firing.
WPR: That’s a really cool way of looking at it and it’s good that we have a place to tell people about that. It’s one of the upsides to the internet and a website like yours.
Jaffe: Thank you. I think our approach to this stuff is fairly realistic and knowing that it’s a struggle. We’re not like “don’t complain, you live in America”. You can never compare your pain to somebody else’s pain. Just because, and we only do this with mental health, just because somebody is starving on the other side of the world we would not neglect to get a broken leg fixed. You can do both. I say this a lot that taking care of your mental health is a very selfless act because it means there is one more person in the world that is mentally present, that is happy, that is stable, that then go out and help the rest of the world. I think that’s the first step and that’s got to be the first step.
Hartshorne: The solution is never to add to feeling bad about yourself. If you already feel bad and you’re like “but I have it so good” that’s a layering, that’s going to make a mental cycle, and it’s great to have perspective. To know that you’re lucky but instead of feeling like “here is how I’m blessed” to “here is how I’m struggling” then put yourself in a position to help them.
WPR: Yeah. That guilt that “I have things better I shouldn’t say anything” is why it took me a year to talk to my parents about being depressed. I was convinced that they would say “oh, no, you’re fine. You live in Park City Utah, why are you depressed, blah blah” but I’ve been very lucky in that sense that my parents have always been very supportive. Having someone tell you that you have a lot more support than you think you do is a very important thing.
Jaffe: Yeah, everybody is going through something and just about supporting each other. And that’s what creates these concentric support circles that just spiral out and out.
WPR: What are some of the most rewarding moments you’ve had since starting the foundation?
Jaffe: We cry like every single day at the office. Our social media manager, Jose, gets really emotional when we get these tweets from people saying how much the videos help. I’ve been working on this since last August, Sarah came on officially in January, and we launched in April. So we’ve been in this long enough that everything still touches us so much but we’re not crying as much. When we shot the first batch of videos in December I cried from one end of that shoot to the other. I was just so touched by everyone opening up. I think the most rewarding moment, for me, was I got to speak at the Children’s Health Council which in Palo Alto which is where I grew up and the first place that diagnosed and treated me as a kid. I got to go back and talk to these kids who go to this awesome school that they have there and I talked about Project UROK before it even launched. I talked about doing comedy and the kids were preteens. I was not expecting them to want to talk about anything and I was like “let’s do a Q&A and you guys can ask me about College Humor and MTV or whatever”. Instead all the kids got up and wanted to share what they were going through with me and with their classmates. They would be like “I’m really lonely, I don’t have any friends” and another kid would be like “me too”. It was this amazing and immediate response. I was still working on launching the site and that was the moment where I was like “this could really work”. It’s so amazing to realize that all it takes is to stand up and say “this is me” and everybody wants to share with you. So we have an entire site of that and we just hope that it’s going to be an outward thing. Also Will Wheaton did a [a video].
Hartshorne: That was so cool.
WPR: I saw that. That’s awesome.
Jaffe: It’s been awesome. If nothing else ever happens with this site, with this organization, we hope that’s not the case, that would be enough.
WPR: What sort of steps do you think people can take to de-stigmatize mental illness?
Jaffe: I think it’s like anything when you’re doing some sort of privilege checking and figuring out how the language around you is affecting the world around you. I think taking ownership of the phrase “mental illness” is very powerful. People have a very strong, visceral reaction when I use it, even people who struggle with mental illness. What makes you feel like that’s a bad phrase?
WPR: I saw that on your FAQ’s.
Jaffe: Yeah, that’s something I talk about a lot. The fact that people have such a strong reaction tells me everything I need to know about the stigma that exists. I think being a good listener, really paying attention when somebody in your life is struggling with something, and not telling them to “suck it up”. I think talking openly about the things you’re feeling can be the easiest way to destigmatize mental illness to the people in your life. You might feel like, with a close friend, I’m just going to say “I’m doing great” and instead say “I had a really rough week last week.” That could be really good for them, they could be like “me too”, they need someone to talk to. If you make yourself a little bit of an open book in your feelings you are opening up a world for the people around you because everybody’s going through something. I think trying to make it seem like things are all fine is such a dangerous game to play because then you might seem a little unapproachable.
WPR: Tell me a little about the panel tomorrow?
Jaffe: I have no idea what’s going to happen with this panel tomorrow. It’s called “The India Inkblot Test: Mental Health in Comics” and I don’t know a ton about comics so I’m a little nervous about that. I think the same thing applies to everything. There are a lot of mental health professionals on there, Gail Simone’s on there, I feel like I occupy a very weird space where I’m not a mental health professional and not somebody who works in the comics industry. I’m just a very vocal person about mental health issues and in organizations addressing them. I’m really nerdy about other things and I feel like this is such a great community in general. As go the nerds so goes the world. Historically I think comics have been a little more forward thinking than other media. While other media it’s seem an experimental with comics, from what I know, they have heroes that are gay, the new Captain Marvel is…
WPR: The new Captain Marvel is a woman and the new Ms. Marvel is a Muslim teenager. Thor is a woman.
Jaffe: Yeah! That hasn’t reached movies yet but it will. There weren’t a ton of superhero movies being made and now there are. As with anything it’s about portraying things. One of the big problems that happens when your portray mental illness is that it’s portrayed with this somberness around it.
WPR: The “special” episode of the TV show.
Jaffe: Yeah and I think it would be awesome to see some characters—when I think of mental health in comics my mind immediately goes to Arkham Asylum. I don’t know what else is out there but I think it would be rad to see some characters who are like “I’m super depressed but I also have this job to do”.
WPR: It doesn’t become their whole character.
Jaffe: Yeah, your mental illness is not ever your character. Your mental illness is a facet in you. My old therapist used to tell me that it was an “instrument in the orchestra of my life”.
WPR: Very cool saying.
Jaffe: it added things to me and it was part of me but it was not the whole picture. It’s very easy to feel like it’s the whole picture.
Hartshorne: I like that metaphor because sometimes it gets too loud or out of tune and that’s when you need to focus on it more. For me the reason I have always loved TV — which is weird since I didn’t have it until I was a teenager because we couldn’t have cable where I grew up it was too remote — I think the point of entertainment whether it is TV, comics, art, is two fold. One is escape and the other is to see parts of yourself. You want it reflect parts of yourself back at you and you want it to transport you to another world. That connection makes you a part of that world in a small way. So it’s always going to be good to have a more diverse and interesting world because more and more people will be able to join it and it won’t be “I connect with some character because they said I agree with and I laughed.” It’s “that person has had experiences that directly correlate to my own and her reactions, maybe they’re different from my own, I can understand them.” The more diverse a world you can the deeper that reflection will resonate and I agree; where go the nerd go the world.
Jaffe: Totally. I think that going back to tumblr. Tumblr has done an amazing job of creating these organizations, raising money for causes they believe in, and really doing a lot of work around. We’ve entered a different era where people are more socially conscious and it’s cool. I think a lot of that started with people on tumblr, people on various blogs and stuff, going “why do we use this language?” I just think that questioning is very important and I think comics can do a lot of that.
All in all the conversation was great and I really enjoyed talking to these two lovely women. It was a great opportunity to tie in my nerdyness to a personal passion of my own. I encourage everyone to check out Project UROK at http://www.projecturok.org/. This is a resource that I also wish I could have had as a teenager because then I might not have fallen into some of those darker holes on the internet and developed some bad habits. The audio for the panel Jaffe was on at San Diego Comic is below. On a more personal level my social media accounts are open to anyone who needs someone to talk to.