New nonprofit hopes to help sufferers of anxiety and depression know they’re not alone
It’s dangerous to go alone.
For Link, it was the advice of an old man in a cave, giving him his sword before the start of his journey to retrieve the Triforce, rescue Princess Zelda, and rid the land of Hyrule from the evil Ganon.
For Russ Pitts, current features editor for Polygon, it’s the mantra of Take This, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping gamers, developers, and other nerdy folk afflicted with anxiety or depression. The idea that dealing with potentially emotionally crippling issues can be much easier with the help of others. “It’s not only a reference to a really good game, it’s actually really good advice,” says Pitts.
Dealing with feelings of anxiety and depression is a burden, one too heavy for one person to bear individually. On their own, sufferers may feel helpless or overwhelmed by their feelings, only for their emotional difficulties to compound because of the stigma surrounding how mental health is discussed in the United States. The idea that you’re dealing with an “unusual” emotion, or that something is “wrong” with you, can be as powerful as the initial feelings of anxiety or depression, and can further cloud the will to seek help.
This is where Take This comes in.
Right now, Take This provides help and support through its Tumblr page, where members of the project have shared their own struggles with feelings of depression and anxiety. The idea is healing through shared experiences, whether it’s the catharsis of reading a piece that mirrors familiar-sounding mental turmoil, or the comfort of well-considered advice or kind words. The group is in its infancy right now, having started only late last year, and there is still much to do before even the smallest of changes can be made. The need is there, though, and Pitts is confident that Take This can help make a difference helping geeks afflicted with depression or anxiety.
Pitts founded Take This after an incident involving a young freelancer named Matt Hughes. Matt was an up-and-coming writer in the video game community, and had contributed to websites like Joystiq, GamesRadar, and PlayStation: The Official Magazine.
Matt also had a secret, one that no one who knew him was aware of until it was too late.
On the morning of October 31, 2012, several of the editors Matt worked with awoke to find an email written by Matt from the night before, explaining that he would not be delivering his assignments, and that he had planned to take his own life. Later that day, police later verified that Matt had followed through with his email.
The incident shocked and saddened many in the games journalism space. Not one person who worked with Matt had any idea that Matt had actually been struggling with depression for quite some time. Several commented that he seemed positive and enthusiastic in their interactions with Matt, and that he showed no outward signs that anything was wrong.
Though he had never worked with Matt, Pitts felt greatly affected by Matt’s sudden passing. Pitts says that he has worked with close to 400 freelance writers in his career so far, and was shaken by the knowledge that any of them could have been experiencing depression in silence the way Matt had.
“Hearing Matt’s story and being aware that I have probably dealt with people who have been in a similar situation – and it could easily have been someone that I’ve worked with – really hit me. That was a bad day.”
Something had to be done.
Pitts took to Twitter, asking if anyone would be interested in a charity or similar program for geeks with depression. The response blew him away. “I think, even to this day, that single tweet has gotten more responses than anything else I’ve tweeted since [I started using Twitter]. Clearly, there were a lot of similar opinions that, as a community, we can do something.”
The interest was there. Now all that was needed was an outlet. Pitts started to collaborate with other journalists in his social circle, tossing around ideas about the best way to reach out to anyone publicly or privately struggling with anxiety or depression. They settled on the idea of telling stories about their own personal battles, and creating a website to help pass along those stories. Anything to let those suffering know that they are not alone.
Along with its stories, Pitts intends for Take This to help lessen the stigma attached to mental health-related concerns.
“I think that’s the biggest danger that we face with allowing issues with anxiety and depression to continue to be stigmatized, is that people don’t reach out,” says Pitts. “They don’t seek help, they’re too ashamed, they’re afraid that people won’t understand, they’re afraid that there’s something ‘wrong’ with them that can’t be fixed.”
Pitts is hoping that the stories on Take This can help add a sense of identification, that anyone feeling anxious or depressed can relate to the stories told and see that their experiences are shared by others.
Even beyond those directly suffering from depression and anxiety, Pitts also wants to reach out to the relatives or loved ones of those suffering, as well. The emotional toll of watching someone you care about battle with their emotions can be nearly as difficult as dealing with them yourself. Pitts hopes that Take This can give comfort to those in support positions, as well as those suffering directly.
“One of the worst positions in the world is to be a family member or a spouse of someone who is struggling, because you can feel like your discomfort at having to deal with the other person’s illness is insignificant compared to what they’re going through. And in a way that’s true, but it’s still a bad deal, and I think people who are in that position really take a lot of comfort from knowing that they’re not the only ones who felt like that’s a bad deal.
“It’s a fun little slogan, but the truth is that it is dangerous to go alone for people suffering from anxiety and depression.”
Take This has been light on updates and activity since the end of 2012, but PAX East gave Pitts and other members of the Take This project a chance to connect with supporters in a more direct way. On March 22, Pitts helped run a panel about Take This, joined by The Escapist editor-in-chief Susan Arendt, Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist, Mark Klein PsyD., a doctor of psychology, Gamers with Jobs founder Sean Sands, and The Escapist news reporter Sarah LeBoeuf, all of whom had contributed to Take This.
During the panel, Pitts was able to discuss Take This’s history and its mission statement. Meanwhile, Arendt, Sands, and LeBoeuf helped illuminate their experiences with anxiety and depression.
Arendt didn’t initially think she had any issues with feelings of anxiety. She had high blood pressure – so high, her doctor thought she was at risk for a heart attack – and sometimes had trouble sleeping, but she didn’t consider herself overly stressed. She was just “busy.”
In truth, Arendt was in denial about the notion that she had a problem. The idea that she was being affected mentally by something she couldn’t control upset her greatly. However, when she started seeing what others had written on Take This, she realized that many were going through the exact same experience she was. It helped her come to terms, and to seek out more information on anxiety.
“Understanding that I had this problem helped me understand why I was reacting the way I was reacting, and what was triggering me, and that I even had triggers,” Arendt said during the panel. “And that knowledge helped me start dealing with it.”
Sands and LeBoeuf shared their stories, as well. Sands recounted his family assisting him during his battle with depression, along with helping his wife through hers, while LeBoeuf discussed how talking about her anxious feelings has made them easier handle, telling the audience, “You say ‘You’re not alone,’ and it sounds trite, but it’s true. It’s just about finding someone you can trust.”
Take This has caught on with its audience, generating an enthusiastic response both online and at events like PAX East. The initial legwork of creating the foundation is through, and the future is open for expansion. The only problem is building up to that expansion.
“We’re at the awkward stage as an organization,” says Pitts, “where even the smallest advances, even taking small steps in what we want to do in our outreach focus, require major organizational shifts.”
The biggest shift of Take This’s forecast is becoming incorporated. Reaching incorporated status is one of the most important parts of a non-profit organization’s growth, allowing for benefits like greater opportunities for financial expansion and tax deductions for donors.
Becoming incorporated also offers a small amount of protection against any legal liabilities. Because Take This is a health-related cause, any monetary commitments on its part have legal ramifications, whether it’s paying to commission a report or buying postage for sending a piece to the New York Times. This makes any means of accepting donations or making any financial pledges “very sticky.”
For this reason, Pitts would prefer that stories on Take This refrain from offering medical advice. Instead, the membership responsible for producing content for Take This is asked to present an overview of what they’ve been dealing with, and offer perspective about how they’ve worked to overcome their problems. Pharmacological recommendations are off-limits.
“We’re not doctors, and I think that there’s a lot of bad we can do in trying to present ourselves as experts. We’re really not. I think the most help we can be to people is to share our personal story, ‘This is what I experienced, this is my perspective on it, this is something that helps me.’”
Becoming incorporated is only part of the plan for Take This. There’s still lots of work to be done in raising awareness of anxiety and depression, but Pitts is confident they can reach their target audience. One way is through facts and statistics.
“That’s one of the things we’re talking about as next steps, to really start gathering information, putting together white papers, becoming a resource for that kind of data.” Pitts thinks the personal stories are helping, but feels that Take This needs to be “speaking their language” of its audience, which often is facts, numbers, reports.
Pitts also wants to reach beyond the games journalism industry. Specifically, he wants to help those involved in game development. Often, developers live in secrecy and isolation, unable to talk about the projects they work on. Issues of anxiety and depression sometimes take hold during long periods of solitude, similar to the conditions many developers face every day. The idea that a developer’s mental health may be adversely affected by their working conditions is not seen by many in the industry so far. Pitts hopes to provide an outlet.
Until it achieves incorporation status, Take This isn’t ready to receive financial contributions from gamers looking to help. Pitts does have one piece of advice for anyone who wants to help, though: tell someone about it.
“Right now, the best thing we can ask people to do is tweet, Facebook, spread the word, point people towards the Tumblr,” says Pitts. “If anything we’re saying speaks to you as a person, the best thing you can do is to help spread that word. Even if you’re one of the rare individuals who knows no one who is suffering from any kind of anxiety or depression issue, tell one person on the bus or at work that we’re doing this, because that person may need the help.”
The stigma surrounding mental health makes discussion difficult, but Pitts is dedicated to help let gamers suffering from anxiety or depression know that their problems are shared by many other people, and that they don’t have to help themselves in isolation.
“I think it’s a big thing, and it’s bigger than any one of us. I want for people to not have to struggle alone.”