If you have a problem, chances are someone else has already struggled with the same thing and has found a way to overcome it. Communicating that to young people through video is one of the primary aims of Project UROK.
(It’s pronounced “You are okay,” but the name can also translate to, “You rock!” Either message is positive.)
The initiative was started by comedienne and former College Humor writer Jenny Jaffe, who struggled in high school with anxiety, OCD and depression. “Initially, comedy seemed the best way to help kids who had the same types of issues that I did,” said Jaffe. In time, though, she took more of a direct approach through Project UROK.
The organization’s web site showcases videos contributed by actors, writers, comedians and others about their own struggles with emotional issues. One of the most popular and high profile videos is by Wil Wheaton (über-geek and Star Trek: The Next Generation alumnus) who has been sharing his own lifelong struggles with generalized depression and anxiety. His video for the Project UROK site is below.
The Project UROK videos cover a range of issues as diverse as the contributors: anxiety, depression, anorexia, social discomfort, shyness, obsessive-compulsive disorder, self-harm and more. The hope is that when a notable, successful person opens up about his or her problems, kids have good reason to expect that they too will overcome their issues and go on to have fulfilling, happy lives.
“I know that I looked up to comedians,” says Jaffe, “because they opened up about their mental illness in ways that I had never heard before in my life from any of my peers. It’s easier when you can say, ‘Well, Maria Bamford has OCD, too and she’s doing all of these things that I want to be doing.’ Wil Wheaton has an amazing fan base, has been a vocal advocate for mental health for a long time and has been very open about his depression.”
Video contributions work both ways. Project UROK users are also invited to submit their own videos to the web site, thereby helping others and further removing the stigma associated with mental illness.
“What I was really interested in,” says Jaffe, “was helping kids feel like there was a community out there to support them. A lot of kids don’t feel like they have families they can talk to. They don’t have support at their schools. They might come from a background or a community that doesn’t support mental health services.”
Interestingly, some of the strongest support communities for kids have evolved online as part of pop culture fandoms. Social media, You Tube and other online hubs have allowed such communities to spring up in an organic fashion.
That’s a fact not lost on Jaffe, who took her message to San Diego Comic-Con and was one of the speakers on a panel called, “The India Inkblot Test: Why Comics Are Good For Mental Health and Mental Health Is Good For Comics.” Fellow panelists included comic writer Gail Simone (notable for many comics including the female character-driven Batgirl, Wonder Woman and Red Sonja), clinical psychologist and occasional cosplayer Andrea Letamendi, Janina Scarlet (clinical psychologist author of the web site and forthcoming book, Superhero Therapy), and forensic psychiatrists H. Eric Bender, R. Kambam and Vasilis K. Pozios of Broadcast Thought, a group that provides professional consultation to the entertainment and media industries on mental health issues.
In fact, Jaffe says when she moved to New York and didn’t know anyone that she found support and comfort in the Star Trek fan community. “A lot of people get involved with those communities—comics, sci-fi, fantasy—because they are looking for support and an escape. You’re getting respite from thinking about your own life. So, I think it’s pretty natural you’d find more direct ways to support each other. I think pop culture also allows you to express things you wouldn’t be able to anywhere else.”
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One of Jaffe’s goals for Project UROK is to provide a more focused resource for kids than the catch-as-catch-can nature of social media without necessarily forcing kids to come to a new web site. “One of our big directives is that we don’t want to make kids relearn how to use a different site. We want to put everything on You Tube, social media, Tumblr—all the places kids are already going to for support.”
For now, all of Project UROK’s content are first-person narrative videos, like the one Wil Wheaton did. Soon, though, there will be additional types of content. A new web series that features comedians has already been shot as well as segments with someone Jaffe describes as, “the Bill Nye of mental health.”
Jaffe also plans to add content in more languages than just English. “We’ve had a huge response from South America and we’ve been trying to provide translations of all our videos into Spanish,” she said. “English closed-captioning, too. We want to make sure there’s no barrier. If you have an Internet connection, we want to make sure you can interact with our videos.
The most important thing Jaffe wants people to know is this: “You are never beyond help. There are people out there who want to help you and want to hear your story. No matter who you are, your story is valuable and you are valuable. I was sure I would have killed myself a long time ago and every day, I’m glad I didn’t. Things really, really got better.”
In other words, you are okay—and you rock, too.