Our Carcosa Interview this time around is with Jenny Jaffe: comedian, writer, entertainer, and the creator of a neat project tackling the stigma of mental illness. Here’s a quick, totally safe-for-work video to introduce you to her work — the UROK project.

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Black Nerd Problems: You’ve talked about your battle with living with mental health and not being equipped at a young age to express what you were going through. You grew up not feeling comfortable and not having the vocabulary to truly explain that. What words would you want to impart to a much younger you who wasn’t at all sure that she’d make to become the woman you are today?

Jenny Jaffe: I always wish I could go back in time and do this! I would probably show her the videos that Project UROK has collected to prove to her that so many people understand what she is going through. I’d tell her that when she grows up, being open with her struggles with mental illness will bring her closer to other people instead of isolating her from them. I’d tell her that I’m not ashamed of her anymore. And I would tell her how many of her dreams end up coming true, even if she feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel just yet. I really wish every teenager going through something similar to what I went through could get in a time machine and see that in the future, even if nothing’s ever perfect, there is so much out there worth seeing.

BNP: On that note, mental health and awareness is a more visible part of healthcare nowadays. Under most insurance plans it seems that mental health services are being covered and seriously considered as treatment. There’s even a Mental Illness Awareness week in October. At what age do we need to start talking to children about such matters so they are better equipped to handle what life throws at them?

Jaffe: I think from the moment children can talk we should be encouraging them to express their feelings in healthy and constructive ways, and we should be creating environments in which it is safe to do so. So many people don’t feel safe talking about their mental health because they were taught from a young age that they should keep negative feelings to themselves, either through direct messages they receive or bullying or abuse at home or at school.

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BNP: What is the significance of including the stories and faces of People of Color in this project, as a partner with #MyHungerGames and The Harry Potter Alliance, as they have mostly been invisible in most talks of mental health awareness and mental illness?

Jaffe: The intersections of mental health and oppression in this country are so rarely considered in mental health conversations, which is absolutely baffling since communities of color are disproportionately affected by mental illness and yet under-served by mental healthcare providers. The most important thing to me was making sure Project UROK never presented any blanket statements about the experience of mental illness, and let people tell their stories in their own words.

Project UROK is first and foremost a platform to help amplify otherwise unheard stories. I want to make it so no matter who logs onto the site, they see their experiences and stories reflected in someone there.

I don’t want kids to grow up in a world where it seems to be only white, cis, straight people with the privilege to afford expensive therapists talking about mental illness — because sometimes that is how the conversation seems.

There are also added stigmas for many People of Color that the national conversation tends to forget about — Dior Vargas, a Latina Feminist mental health advocate who’s also Project UROK’s outreach coordinator, created the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project to address this particular facet of the national conversation’s failure as well, and it — and she — are just totally brilliant. Everyone interested in mental health as it affects People of Color (and everyone should be!) needs to check it out.

Also, any activism that isn’t intersectional isn’t activism I want to be a part of. And mental health activism needs to remember that we fight for the rights of all people or none at all.

BNP: Pandas. What is it about pandas? Are they your patronus?

Jaffe: Oh gosh yes. I have always loved pandas. I love that they are essentially pointless, poorly designed creatures who are so cute that we will never let them go extinct like they seem to want to. That sounds harsh. But it’s true! As a patronus I think they would just distract dementors by being cuddly and like going down a slide.

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BNP: Who are the funniest people around (alive or dead) that have inspired you and what you do?

Jaffe: I know I am going to forget someone but these are the heroes who immediately come to mind: Maria Bamford, Stephen Colbert, Stephen Fry, The Mighty Boosh, Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Eddie Izzard, Lucille Ball. Also everyone in the new Ghostbusters cast — Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Kate McKinnon — are four of the funniest people who have ever existed. I am really lucky, too, in that I’m very inspired by the people I get to work with. I’m involved with a group called Forever Dog Productions that makes the weirdest stuff. It’s great.

BNP: You’ve been quoted in saying that “Comedy was what really saved me at my lowest point,” as you ventured into standup comedy, writing gigs, and even working for such websites as College Humor. What is it about comedy and funny junk that we share and create that just really works?
Jaffe: I quote this probably too much, but Stephen Colbert once said, “when you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.”

The world is a big scary, unpredictable, really tough place, and I think comedy is just one of those brilliant human inventions we’ve created to survive.

I always think, “I mean the world can’t be SO bad if Monty Python existed”. Laughing at fear is such an important tool; it’s why so many comedians become comedians!

BNP: Down the line, what do you hope to come out of your work involving UROK? Ultimately what do you wish people to take away from the wonderful community and resource-rich entity that is UROK?

Jaffe: Oh wow—that’s a big question and I hope I can give a sufficient answer! I hope that people see that they are never alone in their struggle. There is nothing you can experience or feel under the sun that hasn’t been experienced and gotten through before, and you can get through it, too. There are communities of people out there who want to listen and Twitter help you, and I hope Project UROK emboldens people to go seek that help out.

BNP: Lastly: any future projects that you are excited about?

Jaffe: I don’t know what I can or should talk about! I am working on a bunch of things I’m really excited about. I wish I could tell past me just how much there is to be excited about.

Jenny, we’re excited to see whatever you get into. For everyone else, make sure you take a look at the UROK website in full — from the videos to all the resources available. It has truly branched out to a community and there’s even a blog. Check out more UROK on Youtube, Facebook and Twitter see where else this movement to de-stigmatize mental illness leads.  You can find Jenny herself online here but also tweeting away here.

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  • Carrie McClain

    Reviewer/Editor

    Carrie McClain is writer, editor, social media maven and media scholar. Other times she's known as a Starfleet Communications Officer, Comics Auntie, and Golden Saucer Frequenter. Shuri is her favorite Disney Princess. Nowadays you can usually find her buried under a pile of Josei manga. She/Her

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