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Project Launched to De-Stigmatize Mental Illness; BioQuick News Interviews Founder Pooja Mehta

BioQuick News Editor & Publisher Mike O’Neill recently had the opportunity to interview Pooja Mehta (photo), a young Duke graduate, who has recently moved to Madison, Wisconsin and who has just launched, on May 1st, an innovative web-based project intended to de-stigmatize mental illness, by giving those with mental illness a forum through which they can tell their own personal stories. Pooja hopes that when people see the compelling profiles of those with mental illness who are participating in her Project I Define Me, they will have a more positive and accurate perception of what those with mental illness are really like. The hoped-for result is a de-stigmatization of mental illness and a more realistic and compassionate understanding of who people with mental illness really are.

BioQuick News: How old are you, Pooja?
Pooja Mehta: 22.

BQN: Can you describe some of your background? (where you went to school, what you studied, where you work now, what does your work involve?)
PM: I have lived in North Carolina for most of my life, 20 years, and absolutely love it. I had the privilege of going to Duke for undergrad, where I earned my BS in Public Health and Biology. I now work as a Project Manager at Epic, where I help hospitals implement software which allows them to provide the best care for their patients.

BQN: What do your parents do? When did they come to the United States? Where in India are they from?
PM: Both my parents work in the pharmaceutical industry, my mom as a researcher and my dad as a manufacturer. They came to the US in 1991, from Mumbai.

BQN: Do you have brothers and sisters? Where do you fit in with your siblings in age? Do any of your siblings have issues with mental illness? Is there any mental illness in your parents and/or in other relatives you know of?
PM: I have a younger brother, who is 18 years old. There is mental illness in my family.

BQN: Can you describe how and when your first problems with mental illness began?
PM: My first symptoms came when I was 14, in the form of panic attacks and loud, intrusive thoughts. It is hard to say what triggered this, or if it was negative self-talk escalating to a new level. Regardless, it was very upsetting and hard to cope with.

BQN: Can you describe experiences you have had with your mental illness since it first started up until today?
PM: My relationship with mental illness has been a complex one. I have relapsed two times, but the periods of remission between relapse have been getting longer, a sure sign of recovery. I also found tremendous help in being open and talking about my experience. Not only does it force me to be accountable to my recovery, it allows me to see my disorder as a strength rather than a weakness.

BQN: What help have you received to cope with you mental illness?
PM: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and medication.

BQN: What has helped you and what has hurt you in your struggle with mental illness?
PM: CBT has helped me so much, because it has forced me to re-shape the way I think about the world around me and my place in it. I have learned to not internalize blame for things that are not my fault, and I have learned how to set and stick to realistic expectations. I have learned that it is ok when things don't go to plan, and that doesn't make me a failure, or reflect on my worth or ability.

BQN: How have you experienced the stigma of mental illness?
PM: The stigma I have experienced can be boiled down to a skewed perception of what mental illness is. People with mental illnesses have been represented as dangers, as menaces, as threats that need to be proactively ostracized rather than treated. Specifically, I have had peers sever our friendship and organizations revoke my participation and membership because "it is too much of a liability," without including me in the discussion and realizing that I wasn't who they thought I was.

BQN: How did your I Define Me program develop? When did you first think of it? How did/do you conceive of it as working?
PM: The project came out of wanting to reshape people's perceptions of who people with mental illnesses are. I first thought of it as a concept in 2016, but only took action to make it a reality in January of this year.

BQN: Please describe you I Define Me program in detail?
PM: The project aims to show people, with their faces, and their diagnoses, along with a story that they feel represents them. The idea is that this will combat people's pre-conceived notions of mental illness. When you hear "depression," instead of associating it with someone who is lazy, or unreliable, they can associate it with one of the participants of the project instead.

BQN: Is any organization supporting your program?
MP: Currently the program is an independent effort, but there is always room for partnerships!

BQN: When did Project I Define Me launch? How did it launch?
PM: Project I Define Me launched on May 1st, on Facebook, Instagram, and on a website, www.projectidefineme.org.

BQN: How will the Project I Define Me grow and expand over time after its launch?
PM: The growth of the project is dependent on people participating. As more people participate, we can share more posts and get more interaction.

BQN: Do you anticipate national and perhaps global expansion of Project I Define Me as it moves forward?
PM: I would love for that to happen. My hope is that everyone with a mental illness learns about this project and can gain strength from it and participate if they would like.

BQN: How many participants do you now have in your Project I Define Me?
PM: 18

BQN: How do you find your participants?
PM: Word of mouth, currently.

BQN: How do you ensure that participants, especially those who may have a mental illness that affects their cognitive function, are fully informed about how the I Define Me program may impact their personal privacy?
PM: I have a conversation with them that this will be displayed on social media and other public platforms, and that there are possible ramifications of that. So far, I have not had to have that conversation with anyone who has impaired cognitive function, and moving forward I will likely not be including those individuals, because I do not want to risk putting their information online without their consent.

BQN: How do you like Madison? Do you find that the Madison environment is especially conducive to the development of wonderful social action projects like yours?
PM: I love Madison. Everyone here is so open and willing to be vulnerable, as far as I can tell. I have seen a lot of grassroots projects coming out of Madison, which I think speaks to Madison's ability to incubate social action.

SP: Are there others who have been especially helpful and/or inspirational to you in your development of this project?
PM: I would like to send a shoutout to my friend Asher, who helped me a lot with the initial design of this project. In terms of inspiration, that is hard to say because anyone who has pioneered social change inspires me and drives me to do the same.

BQN: Are there other subjects/topics you think I should address in this article?
PM: There's a lot to talk about, but maybe those should be their own articles.

BQN: How do you plan to publicize your Project I Define Me effort? Are you presently in contact with any publications, social media, etc, that will help with the communication of your message(s)?
PM: I have reached out to the Isthmus, Wisconsin State Journal, Buzzfeed, and now this with Street Pulse and BioQuick News, with hopes of coverage, but have not heard anything yet.

Thanks a million, Pooja, for sharing your innovative effort to help de-stigmatize mental illness.

For more information on Pooja’s project, please go to www.projectidefineme.org. You may also contact Pooja for additional information at poojasmehta531@gmail.com.

[Project I Define Me]