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Project UROK Founder Jenny Jaffe Talks Minority Access to Mental Health Care; Chris Hardwick Crashes Wil Wheaton’s Video

"Mental health care is seen as a luxury in this country, and it's baffling to me."

We’ve told you a little about Project UROK and the wonderful work they’re doing to try and de-stigmatize public discussion of mental illness, and posted an awesome video from when Wil Wheaton participated in the project. Now, Project UROK has exclusively shared this outtakes video from the Wheaton shoot, which Chris Hardwick crashes, and they’re even nerdier than usual. Meanwhile, Jenny Jaffe spoke exclusively to TMS about Project UROK in the interview below!

In this exclusive interview, Jaffe addresses reaching out to minority communities, and the overlap between mental health issues and Geek Culture.

Teresa Jusino (TMS): Tell us what inspired Project UROK, and how it came to be.

Jenny Jaffe: Project UROK came into being because I’d written an article for xoJane about my experience with exposure therapy for OCD. And, I’ve been a Woman on the Internet for a long time – I was at College Humor, I worked for MTV, I was a comedy writer – and I know there’s ‘no such thing’ as a positive response on the Internet. But it turns out that this article I’d written really struck a nerve, and I’d never seen such positive feedback! It occurred to me that people still, in 2015, aren’t just openly talking about their personal experiences with mental illness in a way that’s not scary, or not overly-serious. So, it felt like something that I could start a conversation around.

I had the benefit of having the It Gets Better Project come before me, and I started thinking that if I wanted this to be a long-term project, it would need to have some sort of infrastructure around it, because we want to do it in a way that’s responsible and that has professionals around it…

I have now been working on this for over a year, and we launched officially on April 17th. I’ve evolved a lot in how I think about what the purpose of it is. The way I think about it now is that we harness all the communities that already exist on the internet, because there are a lot of support communities on the Internet – but they tend to be smaller (you have to go seek them out), and there are people who are supportive as best they can, but they don’t have any sort of monitoring system. And internet comments can get pretty tricky. So we’re trying to create a community where we have control over the comments and the content, trying to make sure that everything lives up to certain criteria, and we’re trying to spread it as far as possible, because we know that the people who need it the most may not be the people who are able to seek it out.

TMS: What other outreach are you doing? How are you working toward growing the community and reaching out to the people who need it most.

Jaffe: That’s obviously where people like Wil Wheaton are such great assets. People who have that kind of platform and are willing to share it with us. Because sharing Wil’s video is great, but there are so many videos on our site by people who aren’t celebrities and are still struggling. I think that’s important, because for so many of us, we’re going to be dealing with this our whole lives. So it’s really important to us that no matter who comes to our site, that they see their story reflected. And we love Wil, we love when people who have a certain amount of clout and have a microphone and are willing to let us use it, or are willing to be open with their stories. But more than anything, we want to make sure that people see Project UROK as their platform. That’s why we encourage people to make their own videos. We want to make sure people feel like their stories are heard, because I think the marginalization and isolation of people with mental illness is one of the biggest problems. And actually isolation is the fourth biggest cause of suicide. So, we’re trying to combat it that way as well.

Right now, we’re a very new non-profit, so our funds and resources are limited. But eventually, we’d actually like to start doing some community outreach, like workshops in high schools and in underserved neighborhoods – areas that are underserved by mental health professionals. Ultimately, I’d love to be doing some actual advocacy work. I don’t know what that will look like, but I think there’s a lot that has to change, not only in the attitudes about mental health, but in policies that have to do mental health. The fact that most insurance doesn’t cover mental health treatment or medication – that’s a huge barrier between people and getting help! Mental health care is seen as a luxury in this country, and it’s baffling to me. Like, there should never be a barrier between you and getting your broken leg set. Likewise, there shouldn’t be a barrier between you and getting your mental health checked. It’s never seen as a health issue, but to me it’s the most important health issue. I can’t even wrap my head around not seeing it as a health issue.

TMS: There are also a lot of cultural barriers, too. So, not only is there a stigma toward this in the US in general, but even within that, there are various cultural things. In a lot of ethnic minorities, it’s not something that you talk about. Whereas, when you’re white….and this might have something to do with class, too. It’s thought of as White people have therapists. But if you’re Latin@ or black, you don’t think of it as something you need, because there are so many other “more important” things that you need.

[Editor’s Note: Jaffe then brought up the fact that July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month (which I didn’t even know existed, and you might not have either!), and she pointed me to another video at Project UROK by Latina mental health activist, Dior Vargas, who talks about how important it is to address cultural differences when discussing mental health, as well as a photo project you might wanna get involved in. Check it out above!]

Jaffe: I actually think [Minority Mental Health Awareness Month], and the work being done during it are actually more needed. One of the things that we talk a lot about here at UROK is the fact that I am a white person, and my job is to amplify the voices of people who can speak to the issues of getting mental health to communities of color.

Jaffe also says that if you can speak to mental health issues in those communities, she’d love to hear from you! Upload your videos! Get in touch! Go, go, go! 

TMS: You recently did a panel at SDCC to talk about mental health and the connection to comics, right?

Jaffe: Yes! Being there, one of the things that kept coming up is that Geek Culture exists as a way of people taking care of their mental health. I know it worked that way for me growing up. I got into super-geeky stuff and fandoms, because I was feeling really lonely and very isolated and like i needed escape. So, I think there’s a huge overlap. Honestly, I think that therapists should start utilizing whatever fandom to talk to their patients. I mean, I processed my sexuality through D&D. Before I figured out my own sexuality, I explored it through D&D. So it was like I can’t be open about this stuff, but my character…

If you’d like to check out videos, upload your own, or donate to Project UROK and help them do their wonderful work, please visit their website! (Please note that they have a fiscal sponsor, the Tuttidare Foundation, who accepts the donations on their behalf, but that your donation is indeed going to Project UROK!)

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