Comic and writer Jenny Jaffe will be one of the panelists at this year’s “A Force for Good Panel”, discussing pop culture’s power to de-stigmatize mental illness. Joining Jaffe this year will be friend Mara Wilson, writer Alex de Campi, psychologist (and TMS contributor!) Janina Scarlet Ph. D., forensic psychiatrists Vasillis K. Pozios M.D., H. Eric Bender M.D., Praveen R. Kambam M.D from Broadcast Thought.
Jaffe is the founder of the website Project UROK, a non-profit meant to provide resources and peer support to teens struggling with mental health issues. I spoke with her about the panel, which will be Sunday the 11th, and Project UROK.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): What was the original motivation behind your organization, Project UROK?
Jenny Jaffe: Basically, it just didn’t exist already, and it seemed like something which should be so obvious. I was going out there looking for something like it, and coming up empty. And I was really surprised that it didn’t exist already, so I was motivated. It was something I wish I’d had as a teenager, and I meet a lot of people who feel the same way. There are a lot of peer support systems out there, but there is no monitoring and there isn’t a centralized resource center. So we wanted that to be a part of this support network, so participants could get the help they need and share their experiences.
TMS: What were some of the things which were lacking when you were a teenager that you wanted to include on the Project when you started building the site?
Jaffe: I always found it frustrating to hear people saying over and over, you are not alone, here are the statistics, but often coming from people who never experienced what you were going through. Yes, people were trying to be helpful, but when professionals or adults in your life are the ones telling you this, it isn’t very comforting. It’s one thing to hear all the facts, and it’s another thing to hear from people either currently going through the same thing or who can talk about having gone through the same thing when they were your age. To hear concrete narratives about personal experiences which relate to what you are going through and know they got through it. And it’s important not to hear these stories told as if they are totally better now, because you never really are cured, it is just about getting to the point that it is manageable. So I wanted to tell stories which were personal and really realistic. A no bullshit approach that wasn’t clinical.
TMS: How did the opportunity to participate in the comic con panel come about?
Jaffe: The people who put on San Diego Comic Con contacted me about a week before the Con because the Will Wheaton video came out. He did a video for Project UROK and it got really big. So they asked me to be on the panel, which was organized by the guys from Broadcast Thought. And they told me they were doing the same thing at New York Comic Con this year. So they organized it and just asked me to be involved.
TMS: Were you involved in finding participants?
Jaffe: The only person I brought on board was Mara Wilson. She did a Project UROK video for us and has been a huge supporter of us from the beginning. She also happens to be one of my best friends. So it’s been great to work with her on something we’re both so passionate about.
TMS: What impact do you think pop culture can have on this cause?
Jaffe: Well, I think a lot of people get their ideas about what is normal from the media and too often see the stereotypes and stigma’s reflected back. We should see the world we want to create is also possible. We get to choose the kind of world we want created, and we need to hold the media responsible for what they’re putting out there. Because pop culture is so powerful.
TMS: Are there specific examples of pop culture you are planning to discuss on the panel?
Jaffe: Gail Simone’s run on Batgirl, in which she confronts some trauma she went through and is in therapy. And she’s worried that because she’s suffering from PTSD, she can no longer be a hero or that there is something unheroic about seeking help. After all, in the Batman universe, we all know the villains are held in the asylum, and that is a very potent metaphor for people suffering from mental illness. We are seeing similar issues in our media right now. When there is a mass shooting, the media often invokes mental illness. But they never invoke it with people who are doing good things in the world who also happen to be dealing with mental illness. It just doesn’t come up when you are doing good things, which is so detrimental. It’s just important to represent a lot of different stories. I would also say that Inside Out had one of my favorite depictions of depression in recent years.
TMS: You mentioned the shooting, and something like that can be hard to address at a place like Comic Con, which is traditionally pretty light hearted. Do you prepare in advance for how to talk about some of the heavier subject matter which might come up?
Jaffe: I’m ready to just roll with the punches, because last time there were a lot of audience questions and comments. But I feel like I’m prepared to get into some of the hard news, because the news media is pop culture too and they have a huge responsibility regarding how they choose to portray national tragedies and national tragedies in relation to mental illness. Why they choose to evoke mental illness when they do, and the phrasing they use? Why do they only use mental illness when it pertains to white people? There’s a lot they need to be held accountable for. And that is a huge conversation which needs to be had. I don’t know if it is a conversation to be had at Comic Con, but I’d be fine to do that. But I also think it’s totally fine if we want to address something like, how do we incorporate mental illness into comics where that is not the primary focus? But generally, the groups that are at comic con tend to be a little more progressive and are very interested in media representation. Comics have been a bit of a boys club in the past, but I think it is a world that is trying to open up a bit, and this is part of that.
TMS: I totally agree with you about Inside Out’s representation of depression. Are there other examples that you felt really nailed what they were representing and were ultimately helpful in what they depicted?
Jaffe: Unfortunately, I still think it is dealt with as a taboo subject, with hush tones and sad music, and it is often the defining part of a character. But I think Parks and Recreation actually did a really good job at explaining depression a few times, the way Andy Dwyer and Chris Traeger each dealt with it differently. And the way they explained it and what they showed was pretty accurate. Maybe it’s not an accident that Amy Poehler is involved with both Inside Out and Parks and Recreation. I also read a graphic novel called Marbles after San Diego, about someone being put on medication for bipolar disorder, and it is the most accurate depiction. I’m not bipolar, but I have been taking medication for anxiety, OCD, and depression since I was a kid, and it was the most accurate depiction of the inner struggle of knowing these make me feel better, but also being aware that there is a stigma to taking them and I’m afraid that I’ll be less creative or lose my personality. So I thought it was a pretty genius book. Also, Allison Bechdel has written in her graphic novels about her experiences with OCD. And one of my favorite stand ups is Maria Bamford, and she talks a lot about her struggles with OCD. Because I struggle with OCD, it is definitely something I hone in on in pop culture.
TMS: Were their examples of how mental illness have been depicted which really angered you?
Jaffe: I think that there are a lot of depictions of mental health which have been very detrimental. A show like Homeland which depicts Carrie’s bipolar disorder, and showing the most terrifying shock treatment which hasn’t been done in decades. And it’s just treated like this big scary elephant in in the room. She isn’t dealing with it as well as she could be dealing with it, but also the people in her life are very scared of it.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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