I am 46. I have two wonderful kids, a good marriage, lots of friends, and I’ve had a fulfilling career in television and video production. I’ve also struggled with mental illness for most of my life. I am in a good place now, but depression and an eating disorder consumed a lot of my teenage years and early adulthood. I spent years pushing away suicidal thoughts and trying to calm quaking anxieties. As a mother, an aunt, and a concerned adult, I never want any kid to have to experience the terrifying feelings of isolation and confusion I felt so acutely back then.
So, last year, when a teenager I am very close with confided in me that he thought he was “weird,” that he didn’t understand why he was the only one of his friends who had to take medication and see so many doctors and therapists, I wanted to tell him it wasn’t true. He wasn’t weird and he wasn’t the only one, not by a long shot. But it wasn’t my story he needed to hear. He needed to hear about other kids just like him, kids whom he could relate to and understand. I set out to find him those stories.
I grew up in the analog world of landline phones, unwieldy telephone books and unreliable answering machines the size of bedside tables. I had loving and supportive family around me, but finding the community and resources I needed to be able to live the productive life I have now was a Herculean task on a good day. But today, with all of the social platforms available, with the speed and power of digital media, shouldn’t it be easier for him? If, as the NIH reports, 20% of all American teenagers have a diagnosable mental health disorder, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24, and 50% of all lifetime mental illness begin by the age of 14, then don’t we have a national crisis on our hands? Shouldn’t there be an overload of amazing resources available right there on the devices that are practically glued to the palms of their hands?
And yet, when I looked for resources to point him to, most of the information I found was directed at parents, not at teenagers. Of course teens use an ever-growing number of social networks to connect with each other about everything, and there are sites that have video testimonials and educational content. There are even apps to help people monitor how they are feeling on an hourly, daily and weekly basis. But there was nothing I could find that could support teenagers with mental health concerns in an effective, relatable, dynamic, safe, and ongoing way.
That made no sense to me.
Ninety-two percent of American teens report going online daily and three quarters of them have access to a smartphone. If we want to support kids who are struggling, that is where the resources need to be. And these resources need to speak the language of the digital world our kids live in. I was a teen in a pre-Internet era. My isolation made more sense.
To be clear, the Internet is not perfect or without serious risks. It’s littered with misinformation, cyber bullies, pro-rexia sites, and more. According to Pew Research Center, 88% of teens say they frequently witness cruel behavior on social media. But the power of cyberspace can be used for good as well as evil. Kids are clamoring for it. One report shows that 52% of teens feel that social media has a positive impact on their lives. And according to another study, American teens report feeling less isolated than in decades past. One girl I know, Madeline, 16, says that social media is her social glue. “I can stay close with people I don’t go to school with anymore and even people I don’t live in the same state with. It helps bring people together.”
When I couldn’t find the resources for my young friend, it hit me. If I wanted these tools to be available for the kids that I love, I would have create them myself. But big creative ideas are one thing. Making them real is another. I pulled in two friends, Dr. David Grodberg, the Medical Director of Yale’s Child Study Center, and Sharon Cichy, a former teacher and entrepreneur. Together we’ve have turned a passion project into a fully-fledged company.
We have spent the past year and a half creating a platform that speaks to teens with short, compelling, videos, animations and testimonials, a treatment tracker to keep them connected to own their progress, and a place to connect with other teens to de-stigmatize and build community. You can learn more about it here.
We have a strong team of advisors, ranging from psychiatrists, health policy consultants, and privacy and security experts to design architects and app developers. Most importantly, we have a Teen Advisory Board made up of young people from across the country to make sure that the features we offer are as relevant as possible. We know we are onto something. As one 17-year-old Teen Advisor told us, “when getting treatment, we need to be comfortable with ourselves and our surroundings, and we are comfortable in the digital world.”
Whether they are suffering from depression, anxiety, ADHD or more, psych.E can change the way young people get support for their mental health concerns. We have an opportunity to help our children feel understood and succeed with tools that never existed before—we can utilize and create the resources that will engage them within the digital universe that they inhabit.
But we can’t do this alone.
We need your help. It takes a lot of money to build an app like this. It needs complicated programming. It needs security and privacy controls. It needs great content. We recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise initial funds so that we can build a prototype and build traction.
Just yesterday, a young woman posted on our Facebook page “I hope this works out. I had no one there for me…. would’ve been great to have had this.” I couldn’t agree more.
Jennifer Oko is a Co-Founder of psych.E. She lives in Washington, DC with her husband and two school-age kids. In her previous life, Jen has worked for all the major television networks, published three books, and once got to dance with James Brown.