UROK tells troubled teens: You are not broken. U-R-OK.
Opinion: Diagnosed mental illness is still associated with stigma, especially among teens. UROK is a nonprofit telling kids that their feelings are not only normal, they're OK.
The first time I admitted to suicidal thoughts, nothing remarkable occurred.
I remember picking at the dingy carpet of the playroom floor as my tears ran from my bare legs to the ground. I was 16 and found myself in a familiar position: isolated and exhausted by a life I felt was someone else’s. My days consisted of faking basic interactions, while feeling as if I was drowning.
Today, I know I am living with chronic depression and anxiety. Then, I thought I was broken. These emotions were eating me alive. I pivoted from wishing my mother would walk in and hold me to wanting to jump out the window, believing it would it be easier than making the heartbreaking confession.
At some point, I suddenly became very aware that my Facebook profile was staring back at me. Something told me to search for a lifeline. I settled on a new friend who was becoming close, but was by no means an emotional rock. While I don’t recollect the entire Facebook message, I remember punching every letter of this sentence: “I just want to kill myself.”
His kind, loving reply didn't change my mood greatly, but the confession did. I had just admitted to my suicidal thoughts for first time, and I was no longer the same person.
As a millennial, fully confessing my mental state in a semi-anonymous cloak somehow made sense. Without Facebook, I don’t know if I would have reached out as soon as I did. The non-profit organization Project UROK (pronounced: you are OK) understands the relationship between the Web and younger generations. There is a stigma attached to diagnosed mental illnesses, and it’s worse for adolescents. Admitting to these problems during one of the most emotionally unstable points in life is difficult and confusing, but UROK wants to change that.
Launched in March by founder Jenny Jaffe, Project UROK aims “to combat the isolation of mental illness through accessible, funny, meaningful content for teens struggling with mental health issues, made by people who have been there before.” While the site enlists comedians, actors, writers, and others to explain their struggles and how they made it through, UROK encourages anyone facing an issue with mental health to post their story.
About 1 in 5 American teenagers age 13 to 18 is diagnosed with a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. UROK's videos and blog posts, told from first-hand experiences, are looking to openly discuss these issues in a safe environment where teens can get advice or vent. The group looks to maintain a positive atmosphere without judgment by keeping users as anonymous as possible and requires staff approval before a comment is posted.
UROK also offers a large archive of resources for anyone seeking help. In addition to its partnership with Children's Health Council and the several psychologists who sit on its board, all of the staff members of UROK have either dealt with a mental health problem or are close to someone who has. Resources are selected based on helpfulness and whether staff members would use them. From my experience, all of these components of the program are useful for troubled teenagers who sometimes only receive advice such as “feel better, don’t be depressed anymore,” as one post describes.
UROK is not the first to understand the potential for saving lives through social media. Facebook recently updated its own suicide prevention measures to help people find help. Friends or family who are concerned about an individual now have more direct access to professionals if they need assistance and can flag troubling Facebook posts.
There is no one cure or approach for these issues. Each person must find their own way to cope, but knowing you are not alone is a revelation many only come to realize with age and therapy, and some tragically don’t live to learn.
My journey to recovery began with my first psychiatrist asking my mom to sit in on the session, which only led to halfhearted truths. The doctor brushed off my mental state as hormones, prescribing Prozac as a supposed simple fix. It wasn’t until some time later, when I reluctantly agreed to visit a specialized rehab center, that I was introduced to people who actually changed my life.
It is unfair that teens who ask for help can be pushed aside so easily, but it would be a lie to say it doesn’t happen. When someone is ready to seek assistance, it may not be easy, but it is an incredibly important step that requires a solid support system. With the backing of my family and friends and the right assistance, I made it out of my emotional inferno alive.
I sometimes wonder how someone asking, “are you okay?” would have altered my experience. UROK is not only asking the most basic question many who are struggling crave, it has taken one step further by answering desperate pleas with, “Yes, you are okay, and with support, things will get better.”