mental health

'The Artidote' Creator Talks Saving Lives on Social Media

With more than one million followers, Jovanny Varela-Ferreya operates his popular page under the creed "mental health over every damn thing."

Toby McCasker

Toby McCasker

The Artidote is a Facebook page dedicated to discussing difficult thoughts and feelings with art. Run by founder Jovanny Varela-Ferreyra with the ethos of "mental health over every damn thing," it's a welcome antithesis to the sea of self-deprecating and nihilistic memes that fill your feed. Jovanny has created an enormous global community which has rallied to very publicly save at least two people from ending their lives. The most recent  was "the girl from Delhi," whose journey back from the brink via the arms of The Artidote's 'SnapThought' project— where people send time-stamped snaps of what's up and where to @theartidote—made international headlines. I caught up with him to talk about mental health and social media.

VICE: Running the Artidote must be pretty heavy, Jovanny. Why do you do it?
Jovanny: Good question. I don't know, yet. When I was 10, my family moved from Guanajuato, Mexico to Chicago, USA. We did not end up living in a Latino, Spanish-speaking community. School for me became a stress-filled environment. I was bullied for being different and, worse, I literally couldn't express to anyone my feelings. This forced me into daily rituals of introspection: I would sit in class, silently watching the world around me, how it worked and how it made me feel. Since I couldn't ask my classmates anything, I inferred their emotions through their body language and expressions. This is where I began to constantly exercise empathy and self-awareness, two of my core values today. They're what I try to cultivate in others through the Artidote.

How did you get started with all this?
In short, I'm an artist. Having received my BFA in painting from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I decided to move to Germany in 2012. I arrived in Berlin without a job or a housing situation, so I knew I was looking for a unicorn in order to "make it." When my family and I immigrated to the US, I saw first hand the challenges of setting up a new life in an unknown world—and I feel that my parents' courage in facing that challenge taught and prepared me for my own immigrant story.

After six months in Berlin, through hard work and dedication, I managed to gain an Editor-in-Chief position of an online arts magazine called Berlin ArtParasites. There I began to play with the way art was shared on social media. I started experimenting with online artwork curation and community management in early 2014. They had only 20,000 followers. When I left a year later, it was well past one million.

Why did you move on and create the Artidote?
At first it was difficult for me to really believe the messages that were flooding my inbox. Messages in which a teenager from the Philippines, for instance, did not jump from a bridge and kill himself because of something that they saw or felt through one of my curated posts. But the messages kept coming in. I soon realised that I had stumbled upon something unseen in social media: vulnerability.

Social media had become a self-congratulatory landscape where we were only sharing our triumphs, lunch pics and cat videos to be "liked" by those in our inner circle, but we were leaving behind other immensely important aspects to our personhood. To make a long story short, I launched the Artidote in May of 2015 to give direction to my curation, this time with a mission statement: a space to story-tell, empathise, bond and heal through art.

What's this "SnapThoughts" thing you have going?
Fast-forward to the summer of 2016. With almost a million Facebook followers in this new community (comprising of many who have followed my earlier curatorial work), I launched the SnapThoughts project on Snapchat. It was a simple question I asked my audience on Snapchat one crisp August afternoon: What time is it there and what are you thinking? That same day I unexpectedly received hundreds of messages, thoughts pouring in from all over the world. Some heavier than others. And I began sharing them with the entire audience. Then the girl from Cochabamba happened: "I stopped taking my meds so that I could stock up and overdose... tomorrow is the day," she wrote.

The moment I shared that message on my feed, a lot of the new messages that were coming in were in reference to her. These were messages of support and courage from strangers all over the world. To my and everyone's surprise, our messages got to her on time and she did reconsider. I think this was the first time when I truly acknowledged the power and potential of what I was doing with Snapchat. A few months later, the story of the girl from Delhi went viral. And that's when you entered the picture.

Yeah, it really got to me. Tell me about how the Artidote saved the girl from Delhi's life.
Reading her first message raised an immediate red flag with no time to waste. So I quickly sought back contact. Here was a 20-year-old girl from Delhi, impregnated by a moment of intimacy with someone she was in a "situationship" with the moment the condom broke. The important detail here that we cannot grasp from her snap is the socio-cultural context of India and the strict views towards premarital sex, family honour and abortion. These three are issues that always divide people depending on their religion, culture or upbringing. The fact of the matter was that here was someone who didn't see a way out but to kill herself before bringing shame to her family—and I was caught in the middle of it.

Shit.
When she messaged back I began talking with her to find more about her specific situation and see her options. Not being as familiar with Delhi and Indian customs when it came to this situation (an unwanted pregnancy outside of marriage. I'm sure she's not the first, nor will she be the last, Indian woman facing this critical issue). I simply asked her to give herself more time to breathe. I told her I would be sharing her story and to please wait for the response. What I didn't tell her is that I felt helpless about her situation. Now, at this point I've come to realise that, in this role, I cannot take the responsibility of carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders; that there will be people who reach out to the Artidote that I simply can't do anything for other than direct them to professional help. This was one of those situations where I felt helpless. Or so I thought.

What happened?
As the messages of support kept coming in, I began to share them on the timeline for her—and everybody else—to see. After a while, I simply began to privately send her the snaps that kept coming in. And it was one of these private snaps in particular which, as she later expressed, made all the difference. It was this one snap that forced her to confront her mother with her situation and take it from there. Said snap shows someone from Karachi in Pakistan kneeling on their praying mat, praying for the girl from Delhi.

Why do people have this need to connect online? 
Biologist E. O. Wilson once said that "The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology." This cathartic experience of collective expression is nothing new. It may be novel by the use "god-like" technology I use to collect, share and connect thousands of Snapchatters in one click—but not new. The emotions are still Paleolithic. To me, this online experience that I've enabled is not something exclusive to these connected to the new virtual spaces the internet has enabled. We've been gathering for millennia to share our stories and bond, whether it be through the spoken word, dance or rituals. Connection has always been a necessity. 

Is sorrow a privilege as some research suggests?
The question of privilege is a tricky one. Without attempting to prove a point by way of exaggeration, I think that being a human being is already a privilege—and every emotion, from sorrow to happiness, that is wrapped up inside that package. If we start from that point, then we can have a more amplified perspective about what are our responsibilities with that privilege. Because the question of privilege begs for responsibility, right? Being a human being bears a responsibility, doesn't it?

Maybe, but how do you tell genuine suffering apart from the attention-seeking of those who simply feel unremarkable?
I'd say that the feeling of being unremarkable is tied to loneliness by the fear of rejection. When I feel unremarkable I don't have the interest nor confidence in meeting people because I feel like I have nothing to offer to them and therefore they might reject my presence, which leaves me lonely. Loneliness genuinely hurts, I don't think it's a masquerade. We are biologically made to be social beings. We are all attention-seekers. We all need attention to fulfil this biological necessity to be and feel present; to verify that we're really here; that we matter; that we are remarkable in some way. And if we understand how necessary and empowering attention is for a human being, we should feel empowered to realise we can also be a source that gives it.

And when empathy is left alone to become apathy?
Conversations around mental health, in general, were not as common five to ten years ago. But the rise of generated relatable content across social media I think is due in part to the tyranny of the "like". Up until recently, aside from commenting, there was only one other way of interacting with content on Facebook: liking it. So I don't think it's a glorification of emotional issues that is happening here, but a lack of proper tools to express what we really want to say and feel. Is it too much of a stretch to think that we actually did not realise how common and spread out mental illnesses were but, because the convo did not enter our regular routines or feeds, we had no idea? The moment a taboo breaks is the moment everyone is relieved to be able to express what they've been holding back.

True as fuck. This just in: The majority of people will have to cope with mental illness of some kind. 
Now, there is really a problem here that you're bringing up and we cannot disregard: the romanticisation of mental illnesses. It's similar to how "cool" smoking has been portrayed by the media and marketing businesses. What we, individually, need to be more responsible for is how we use social media—which is media nonetheless. We are both producers and consumers in this sphere. We have been given these easy tools to curate, mediate and filter a slice of our reality and publish it. So we are all responsible for the media our friends or audience consume, even if it's our own life we're displaying and performing for them.

From my part, I have been very careful not romanticise or trivialise mental illnesses or emotional struggles. I know how easy it is, for example, to exploit people's base emotions and publish a piece on heartbreak—the easiest way to be relatable and receive a bunch of likes and shares. But I'm not in the business of growing likes. I'm in the business of growing with people. And I don't want to take advantage of already vulnerable people for the sake of internet popularity and monetisation—there are plenty of those already around.

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