Coming to the Rescue of Troubled Teens

jenny jaffe

Jenny Jaffe had her first suicidal thought when she was 10. She didn’t really understand what it meant at the time. Despite having a very supportive and loving family, she remembers wishing that she would die in an accident to save her parents heartache.

In high school, she had her first panic attack. Soon, she was having two or three a day; she was often overwhelmed by a fear of throwing up. She couldn’t touch things, couldn’t shake people’s hands, obsessively checked her temperature and constantly washed her hands. She was terrified of getting sick, to the point where a cold would set her off.

Jaffe, who is now 24, suffered and still suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is characterized by apprehension or obsessions that can lead to repetitive behaviors.

“I just was miserable living in my own head. And I had all of these horrible, intrusive thoughts,” Jaffe said. “And I got very depressed. And I think again it was depression borne out of exhaustion. Just like I don’t want my life to look like this.”

Jaffe doesn’t want other teenagers to feel that way, so she decided to do something about it by starting Project UROK, a non-profit to help teenagers struggling with mental health issues. The project, which will officially launch on March 25, makes use of social media and produces practical advice videos or testimonials from people who have suffered from mental illness in the past. In the videos, they share their stories and their advice; things they wanted to hear during their youth. The videos are meant to be meaningful, but also funny on occasion, to make teenagers feel at ease.

“I wish I could go back and tell my teenage self how cool life got and this is sort of my way of doing that,” Jaffe said.

The idea isn’t entirely new. Increasingly, those suffering from mental illness are turning to social media websites like YouTube to give and receive peer support, researchers from the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice reported in the online scientific journal, Plos One.

Project UROK started posting videos every Tuesday and Thursday over a month ago. They already have almost 800 followers on YouTube. But with the coming official launch that number is likely to grow. Project UROK solicits videos through its social media platforms through posts that encourage viewers to come to one of its studio days or film themselves at home and e-mail in the finished product.

One of the videos, posted on February 5, features a young man, John Minus, speaking about his battle with depression and borderline personality disorder. In the video, he says, he found himself often changing his identity to match what he thought the girl he liked at the time wanted.

“And I did it so much eventually I didn’t know who I was,” he says in the video. “When I got out of the hospital, I was like I don’t know who John is. I used to be somebody.”

In another video, Sarah Elizabeth Grace, an actor and writer, outlines her struggles with alcoholism and drug abuse. She explains how she had felt she didn’t fit in, but once she started drinking and smoking pot, she felt confident and at ease. Filming the video was easy, according to Grace. She was just worried about what came after that.

“Seeing my name with UROK on the YouTube channel and being like ‘Oh gosh my aunt is going to see this’ was hard,” she said. “But then you have to be like ‘That’s okay because you know maybe it’s going to help somebody’ and that’s really the most important thing.”

While Grace was working to get sober back in 2010, she found herself watching videos published by the It Gets Better Project, an organization similar to Project UROK, which circulates videos designed for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth of the world, to provide hope and to solicit change. Grace wasn’t struggling with her sexuality, but she did relate to the videos.

“They made me feel like ‘Okay, I’m in this really, really dark place now, but I know it’s going to get better,’” she said. “UROK would have been such a huge help, you know, feeling like I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t going to struggle as much as I was at that time.”

A few weeks before the official launch, Jaffe sat in a tiny office space, separated from numerous other small companies by sheets of glass. Despite moving into the space only the day before, the cramped room already has personality. There are colorful notes on the walls, a stuffed panda perched in the corner, and a drawer of snacks including kale chips that Jaffe dipped into while answering questions. She generously offered a visitor a handful.

She said she feels capable of handling her mental health issues now. She admits there are some days when she still has trouble getting out of bed, but they are few and far between. She laughs and jokes easily. Her red hair and metallic blue nails highlight her bright personality.

Jaffe said the idea behind Project UROK started a few months ago, after she wrote an article for xoJane, an online publication geared towards women, about her experiences with exposure therapy, where patients with anxiety disorders are exposed to their fear in a safe environment in the hopes of helping them overcome that fear. Previously, she had felt the need to keep her mental disorders hidden.

She says she was terrified when her article was published. But she received overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially from others suffering from some form of mental illness. It made her come to the conclusion, she said, that there should be a safe place for people to talk about their problems and share their experiences. So she started Project UROK to create digital content for young adults who might be struggling as she once had.

“It’s really easy to get into this headspace where you think I’m the only person who doesn’t have it all together,” she said.

Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan, who is not affiliated with Project UROK, agrees that isolation plays a large role in mental illness and she believes that videos like the ones the project is producing are a great tool to help those in need.

“I like that model because it shows people that might have a mental illness from an empowered standpoint,” Dr. Carmichael said. “I think it’s important to let people know that you can recover from or even learn how to fully manage many mental illnesses.”

Initially Jaffe funded the organization out of her own pocket with the support of her family but according to Jaffe, the costs have been minimal. Now it is entirely funded by grants and donations. She was not comfortable divulging the exact costs.

Project UROK, which has numerous mental health professionals on its board, is also meant to be a tool to help tear down the negative stigma surrounding mental illness.

Christopher Crew, a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia University, believes people simply don’t understand what it means to be mentally ill. He argued that many people believe that mental illness is something one should be able to “just shake off.” But Crew has a brother who suffers from schizophrenia and knows firsthand that that is not the case.

“They really think that it’s just about the person not having the control to actually deal with whatever they’re dealing with from a mental health perspective,” Crew said. “Mental health is just like physical health. Things break down.”

Sarah Hartshorne, 27, the production coordinator at Project UROK, said the reaction from friends and acquaintances to the work of the organization thus far has been very positive—and is a step in the right direction.

“And I think that’s because mental illness or mental health affects literally everyone,” Hartshorne said. “So, it just very much feels like there’s a sense of relief when we talk about the project and just the idea.”

With the help of their supporters, the group plans to continue expanding its website and posting more videos, including testimonials and practical advice from professionals.

“We just want to get as many stories of people courageously dealing with their challenges on film as possible,” Jaffe said. “Because if there’s an army of us saying that we’re not going to be ashamed of it, it’s going to be very, very difficult for that stigma to continue.”