It started with a group of friends spray-painting a few stencils with words of inspiration on the sidewalks of Toronto in the middle of the night.
“It’s okay not to be OK.”
“We’re all in this together.”
Each statement finished off with the hashtag #thesadcollective, written in a half-circle shape you’d swear was smiling at you.
One by one the stencils popped up all over the city, and soon on all our Instagram feeds, too.
“We were surprised by how quickly our stencils resonated with people,” says Meghan Yuri Young, 32. “And how fast we started seeing them show up online with our hashtag.”
Over the past year, Young and Vasiliki Marapas, 25, have worked together to launch The Sad Collective, a social media community that intends to normalize the way we talk about mental health in ways that appeal to millennials: real-world stories, honest blog entries and crying Drake memes.
The pair was brought together through mutual feelings of sadness—Young, in the throes of a divorce and Marapas, a bad breakup. Both were tired of pretending to be OK, when they were anything but. “It was remarkable that I couldn’t deliver the response everyone expected of me when they asked how I was doing,” says Marapas. “They wanted to hear I was doing fine, but I wasn’t. And I didn’t want to fake it anymore. I wanted to own my sadness.”
Young and Marapas forged a friendship at work and hatched their new collective during creative coffee breaks together. The final pieces fell into place when they joined forces with designer Mo Bofill to create the stencils that would soon drive traffic to their burgeoning blog and Instagram.
This Friday, Young and Marapas will headline One Brave Night, a Canada-wide challenge created by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) that urges people to stay up all night in solidarity with the one in five Canadians currently living with mental illness. This will be the third annual One Brave Night event, which has already raised enough money to create three new youth clinics and laid the groundwork for more timely access to mental health services in remote and underserved communities using telepsychiatry.
Technology is playing an increasingly bigger role in access to care—whether through telepsychiatry or therapeutic apps—and so too is social media.
“We wanted to create a social community for people to come together and share their stories and break the stigma around mental health and mental illness,” says Marapas, who grew up in a household where mental health wasn’t discussed. “That same much later, when I was in university and talking with friends, and I realized the value of self care and started gaining the tools to understanding why I was feeling the way I was,” she says. “I wanted to share that.”
It was important for both Young and Vasiliki to launch their collective using social media and to create what they hope will be a strong Instagram movement. (Nearly 1,000 posts have popped up with the hashtag #thesadcollective, so it looks like it’s working.) “People are moving away from perfection on social media and are showing the messier sides of life. There’s something really empowering about admitting your struggling and sharing it online,” says Marapas.
To that end, The Sad Collective is running #SadStories, inspired by Humans of New York, where they profile people in the city by asking them the question “What makes you feel vulnerable?” They’re also launching a modern-day advice column, Aunt Agony, on their blog soon.
When describing their friendship, Young admits that she and Marapas were complete opposites in terms of personalities. “I’m cheerful, almost sickeningly bubbly, and Vasiliki is more witty and sarcastic,” says Young. “But we work really well together, and we’ve helped each other so much. I think that says a lot in itself about how we can really come together and not feel so alone.”
Young and Marapas have created t-shirts, which they ideally plan to sell in the future, sharing a portion of the profits with mental health research and dedicated organizations. For the folks eager to get a piece of the iconic stencils, they will be handing out stickers and patches that they’ve made at One Brave Night.
“I’m looking forward to Friday and working with CAMH,” says Young. “They’re an amazing institution and they’re doing so much to normalize the conversation and show that people aren’t victims for being vulnerable.”
“At the end of the say, I just want people to know it’s OK not to be OK,” says Marapas.