Talking about mental illness isn’t easy. Joking about it is. The art, comedian and activist Jenny Jaffe can tell you, is in segueing from the one thing to another.
Jaffe is the founder of Project UROK (pronounced “You are OK”) a nonprofit dedicated to de-stigmatizing mental health through humorous, open discussion. As part of her campaign to help mentally ill youth to battle isolation and lower suicide rates, she provides a platform for professional comedians and regular internet users to talk about their experiences. She keeps it light, even when shit gets heavy.
In a sense, Jaffe wants to use the Seinfeldian “What’s the deal with…” to do good. She’s an observational comic and, for her, mental illness is just another thing. It is neither important or unimportant unto itself. It is an experience rooted in the stuff that makes us human and, as such, can be a bit taboo to talk about without being dismissive. Jaffe is never dismissive, and that’s what makes her funny. She’s not rubbernecking, but she’s also not going to look away. She spoke to Inverse about making anguish just another fucking thing.
What inspired you to start Project UROK?
I was diagnosed at a very young age with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, which later manifested into depression and severe OCD. I was basically catatonic in high school, but I was really lucky and had a supportive family that got me help. It’s a luxury in our country when it shouldn’t be.
One of the symptoms I was feeling was withdrawing. I physically could not be at school a lot of the time, so I was really physically isolated too. The thing that always made me feel better during this time was hearing people — especially comedians I admired — talk about their own struggles with mental illness. What was even more helpful was hearing people who I admired talking about their experiences with what I was experiencing. I really clinged to that. I had cut out so many articles at home from people like Stephen Colbert and Sarah Silverman and was surprised that they were talking about their experiences with various mental illnesses.
So you decided to help others experience that, through the internet.
I wanted to do something where it would be going out to kids where they already are, so they don’t have to separately seek something out. Something might show up on their Tumblr, or in their YouTube subscriptions, or on Twitter, and that’s a lot easier for kids who are having a lot of difficulty admitting what they’re feeling to have a resource fall into their lap through channels they’re used to dealing with.
Your approach is interesting because it uses humor to address something that isn’t exactly funny when it manifests in real life. How do you keep things funny without being disrespectful?
Addressing comedic topics in a serious way without being flippant about it is something I admire in a lot of my favorite comedians. One of the best ways to address any topic is to keep it personal. We’re not really going out there and making fun of or making assumptions about anything anyone else is going through. But when you can joke about yourself and say, “This is something I deal with,” and treat it in a way that’s like, “I’m not crazy,” then somebody else that’s going through that is going to say the same thing. It’s just making observations about what it’s like day to day.
Mental illness has so many different manifestations and different ways it affects people across all different kinds of intersectional lines. But I think one of the things comedy is really good at is saying, “Here is this thing that’s going on with me” — taking this personal experience and talking about it in a way that’s universal. You’re not making fun of the person going through it. You’re not making fun of anyone who got a different diagnosis. You’re staring down the thing that’s scary to you and saying: This is what’s funny about it.
Project UROK encourages users to upload videos of themselves talking about their experience. Is this therapeutic in itself?
Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things about mental illness is it’s an invisible illness. You never know who else is going through it, so you feel like you can’t talk about it. And we’ve created a society in which talking about it out loud brings up a lot of negative images: You say the words “mental illness” and you don’t think about the teenagers and everyday people who are getting up and going to work and taking care of their families. You think of violence and scary, crazy people who you don’t interact with. It’s one of the reasons I’m so insistent on using the term ‘mental illness’ — it’s still spoken in hushed tones. But talking about it in a public form can be really therapeutic.
How do you hope Project UROK will change the way we look at mental illness?
There’s an instinct sometimes where people want to talk about mental illness and it’s like, [serious tone of voice] “Let’s now talk about mental illness on this very special episode.” And the reality is, for people living with mental illness, some days they’re right! You can’t get out of bed and you don’t want to laugh at anything and it is a very bleak, dark time. But a lot of the time it is okay. My life isn’t a black and white commercial. People with depression aren’t just sad all the time. People with depression deal with depression and also deal with all the other things about life too.
Have there been any stories from users or comedians that have been surprising to you?
A lot of the times I had no idea. For a lot of them, it’s like: “I’ve known you forever. I thought you had your shit together. You’re somebody I was really jealous of because I thought your life was easy.” I got an Instagram message from someone saying, “Thank you so much for this. I’ve been struggling so much. I’ve been feeling very alone and very depressed.” And I looked at her Instagram and I thought, if I just saw this girl, I’d think she has the easiest life. She’s so pretty and everything seems fun, and she has friends.
I think the biggest thing I’ve really come to understand is that you just never know what someone’s going through. You just have to be kind to people because you just do not know.