you are not alone, and you are okay: interview with jenny jaffe
With a recent survey revealing that one in thirteen teenagers have contemplated suicide, it is clear that humanising mental illness is more important than ever. This is the goal of Project UROK (you-are-okay), which uses personal testimonials to normalise these struggles and offer support. Public figures, such as Wil Wheaton and Bobby Long, are among many who have shared their experiences and stirred much needed conversation.
Jenny Jaffe, the Founder/Executive Director of Project UROK, inspiringly created the campaign after a long battle with OCD, anxiety and depression. Jaffe speaks to us about overcoming obstacles, the benefits of escapism and the future of Project UROK.
What was your main inspiration for starting Project UROK?
I first conceived of Project UROK after writing an article for xoJane about my experience in exposure therapy for OCD. So many people reached out to me after that article came out to tell me that they had never heard anyone they know talk openly about these issues before. There were also an alarming number of teen suicides in my hometown that happened around the same time. It seemed like starting Project UROK was something I could do to help.
Do you feel that Project UROK has successfully reached out to minority groups and represented diversity?
I don’t think there will ever be a point where I can say, ‘we’ve done it, we’ve represented diversity!’ It’s an ongoing process and conversation, and there will always be a new, important voice to be heard. We are diverse as an organisation, and we seek to provide a platform for the diversity of experiences with mental illness. My greatest hope is that everyone who visits our site feels as though their experience is being reflected and respected.
How is Project UROK influenced by comedy, and why have you chosen this approach?
My background is in comedy writing, and it’s one of the key ways I’ve coped with my mental illness throughout the years, so it seemed like a natural fit. Most of my friends are comedians, so a lot of our videos feature comedians for that reason and because of how many people get into comedy as a way of dealing with the world around them. Stephen Colbert once said, ‘When you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.’ That quote has always deeply resonated with me.
You’ve said that joining a Star Trek community helped support you when you were struggling with your own mental health. Tell us about the value of tapping into geek culture and fandoms.
As with comedy, geek culture – especially sci-fi and fantasy – can provide much needed escape from the difficulties of day-to-day living with a mental illness. Certainly for me it was often easier to get wrapped up in a space adventure than it was to think about what I was going through at the time. So, not only is it important for us to tap into the fandom community because of how big that potential audience is, it’s also important because I think there are a lot of people in those communities with whom our mission will resonate. Also, fandoms get stuff done. They get shows resurrected after years of being off the air. They raise money for causes they care about. They support each other. We are trying to become an extension of the support communities that already exist online.
What do you consider your greatest achievement so far, either personally or professionally?
Starting Project UROK may be the answer to that, though I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a lot of very cool personal and professional experiences… Frankly, making it through high school may have been the achievement that actually took the most effort!
What has been most challenging about this venture? How have you found adjusting from comedy writing into business management?
Learning how to manage a business is an ongoing process, and I’m really lucky to know some amazing business people who have been helping to guide me through. I think the hardest thing for me is the concrete, day-to-day aspect of it. I’m very clear on the mission, and what our creative output should look like, but I’m not great at, say, figuring out the steps that have to happen in order to rent our film equipment for an upcoming shoot. This is one of many reasons I’m so lucky to have Sarah Hartshorne as my second in command. She’s unbelievable. She’s great at knowing what needs to happen and when, and then she’s great at making it happen.
The inclusive approach of Project UROK has really worked to reduce stigma and create healthy discussion. What plans do you have for the future to continue breaking down barriers?
Thank you so much for saying so! Inclusivity is paramount to me, so I’m really glad that is coming across. It is my sincere hope that we can continue to provide a platform for marginalized voices on the subject of mental illness. This fall we’re launching a campaign with the Harry Potter Alliance to raise awareness of the difficulty of getting mental healthcare for people living below the poverty line.
Lastly, do you have any advice for our readers who are currently struggling with their own mental illness?
I know how hard it is. Trust me, I know. I was sure I was going to kill myself before high school graduation. I am so glad every day that I am here – even on the days when it’s still a struggle. Mental illness is a chronic illness, and it’s rough, but with time and treatment it does get easier. Help is out there, and there are so many people who care about you and want to help you. I’m one of them. Take it one moment at a time. Pick silly things to live for, like the next episode of a favourite TV show airing, and then when that time passes, pick another. Remember that you don’t know what the future holds. You don’t know how much better things can get. You and your story are important. You are not alone, and you are okay.
If you live outside Australia, you can find a suicide prevention service here.