Project UROK is a nonprofit organization focused on producing interactive and informative videos to raise awareness in teens and adults about the struggles many face regarding mental health issues.
We got the chance to sit down with the company's founder, Jenny Jaffe (right), vice president, Sarah Hartshorne (left), and Heidi Vanderlee to discuss UROK's mission, some of the celebrity guests they've worked with, and how they hope to reach out to more viewers to help raise awareness.
PopWrapped: Can you give us a little background on Project UROK?
Jenny Jaffe: I'm the founder, executive director, and organizer of Project UROK. We are a nonprofit organization dedicated to destigmatizing mental illness for teens and young adults through digital content.
Sarah Hartshorne: Yeah, Jenny's the founder. She started work on it in August of last year, and we formally launched on April 17th of this year, and I came on--I'm the vice president, production coordinator--in January.
PW: How was it working and filming with Wil Wheaton?
JJ: I didn't actually get to work or film with him. I only got to meet him the other night at the Nerdist party. It was the best, because I walked up to him and I said, "Hey, I'm the founder of Project UROK," and he gave me the biggest hug--it was a legit hug that lasted a while! And we chatted briefly; he's the most wonderful, kind person . We actually had our film crew going out to LA anyway, so we had them meet up with Wil at the Nerdist office and do an interview there. They said it was great. We had half an hour of amazing footage that Charlie, our editor, cut down to the five minutes that you see online.
PW: But is he going to make a gag reel, or the extra footage you didn't get to see?
JJ: I don't know if we're allowed to say! [But] there's some very exciting extra footage we're going to be releasing fairly soon.
PW: Is it going to be released on digital download?
Heidi Vanderlee: It'll be a streaming online video. We're working on the venue for it.
JJ: It's really great. I've seen it, and it may blow up a tiny little portion of the internet with how cute it is.
SH: It's so cute!
PW: It'll be up there with cute puppy faces and cats that skitter on hardwood floors.
JJ: That's such a cute thing though! It's cute and sad.
SH: And cats falling asleep.
PW: Have you had contact with other celebrities to bring awareness to the cause?
JJ: We are constantly looking for, and reaching out to, people who we think are interesting and outspoken champions for mental health. We have our amazing publicist, Heidi, who has done a lot of help on that sort of outreach. But we are a platform for whoever wants to tell their story, and a lot of people have said, "I would love to do a video, but I'm not famous," or "I'm not notable." We think that everybody's story is notable and everybody's story is valuable. It's a combination.
SH: Yeah, we've gotten people who are of a higher profile to support [us]. Even just getting Wil, who is wonderful--the reality of people who are famous is that their schedules are super packed and it's hard to manage.
JJ: We do hope that as this continues to spread, and the more people with large platforms choose to use those to help spread the good word about how valuable mental health is.
SH: Also, diversifying the content has been something we're going to start moving into: doing web series and sketches and also just encouraging people to tell, to make, different kinds of videos as they want to--as they're inspired to. If they want to sing a song, or read a poem, or do a video where you can't see their face...making that into video content, that would be amazing.
PW: So when you say diversifying, you mean touching upon the different kinds of mental illness?
JJ: [She] just meant diversifying the types of content, although one of our main directives and focuses is to make sure our content represents the breadth of experience of mental illness. From diagnosis, to background of the person, to the accessibility that person had to mental health care. So diversity in form and diversity in content are important to us.
SH: I think that's what Project UROK is striving for and what sets it apart in a lot of ways. We can't provide medical advice, we can't provide care and diagnosis. What we can provide is a place to see stories that we hope reflect your own. So Jenny and I speak to our experiences all the time, and we try to be really open about it. But we can't speak to all experiences--and we wouldn't want to. We can't personally speak to what it's like to have an eating disorder, so we want people who are struggling with that to see people who can. We want to create a really [whole] look at what mental illness looks like, because it's not one thing, ever, and it doesn't discriminate.
PW: Absolutely. I struggled with that at the end of middle school, beginning of high school. I came to my parents one day and said, "Guys, I can't talk to you. It's not that I don't want to, but I feel like I won't be heard." So [then] it was the process of finding a doctor, finding a doctor you're comfortable with--who won't make you feel like what you're going through isn't that important. There are some doctors who prescribe a box of pills, and then there are those who will sit down with you and listen to you and try and find the best course of action without the use of pills, because you won't have those forever.
JJ: I do take medication, I have since I was 10 years old, and I think it can be a very valuable tool to people. We don't believe it's a tool that's right for everyone, certainly, and I think that if you don't want to take medication, or if you and your doctor talk it out and medication is not the right avenue, there are so many other things that you can do, and there are so many avenues you can pursue. For some people, that's what you need. The chemistry in your body isn't right, and there's no shame in taking medication, there's no shame in not [taking it]. The important thing is that everyone gets the specialized care that works for them. I think the problem is when it only takes half an hour for that prescription to be written. The reality is therapy and mental health care are and should be an ongoing process. It should not just be when you're in crisis mode, it's when everything is fine and you just need to check in. You need to get a doctor's check up once a year, and mental health should be pursued and provided in the same way as physical health.
PW: Absolutely. Not everyone's treatment is going to be the same. You could have two people, ten years down the line, with the same diagnosis who, because of their backgrounds and their treatment process, they could be in completely different areas [of mental health].
JJ: Totally. There's a lot of complicating factors.
PW: It's a hard subject for me, because it hits so close to home. I've gone through it, I know people who have gone through it, and I know people who are still going through it. I want to try and find a way to help them without sounding like I'm trying to be a parent.
JJ: It can be really hard. I think one of the things we want to create more content around is to be the confidant of a person with mental illness, or how hard it can be on a family member or a significant other.
PW: Is there anything else you guys want our readers to know?
JJ: Just that if they're interested in learning more they can go to ProjectUROK.org, follow us across all social media at ProjectUROK, and they can find out how to make their own videos, donate, and get involved in other ways on our website.
You heard them! Head on over to their main website and get the full details about Project UROK from Jenny herself in the opening video. Feel free to browse around, watch some celebrity interviews, and make your own video content--story, song, dance number, it doesn't matter! As long as you're content is true to you, others will respond.
We're not alone, we have each other. It's time we reach out and embrace each other as a community, and Project UROK can help us do that.
Stay strong. Stay safe. Be heard.