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Salt Lake Comic Con 2017

Organizations Raising Awareness of Mental Health at Comic Con

Salt Lake City—What’s scarier than any Halloween movie, any blood-soaked clown waiting in a gutter or any zombie hoard stumbling down a dirty street? Utah’s suicide statistics. Suicide is the No.1 cause of death for children between 10-17 in the state and the second-leading cause of death between 18-24-year-olds. Mental health is a serious problem here. Numbers have only been going up since 2011, according to the Utah Department of Health. September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and the cause has allies in an unlikely location: Salt Lake ComicCon.

Among the vendor booths filled with anime, sci-fi and fantasy memorabilia, or the throngs of artists or cosplayers, are a few booths offering mental health resources. The University of Utah’s University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI) was one such booth, and some of the coordinators from UNI manned their booth in costumes, inviting con-goers to come and chat.

It’s too important of a cause, after all, to let the opportunity go by.

“We try to have a presence everywhere, at every major event—Pride festival, ComicCon, everything. ComicCon is really big. People are trying to be themselves. They really want to open up. They’re being dressed up, they’re being their ‘nerdy self,'” said Michelle Khodorkovsky, project coordinator at UNI. “But a lot of people do get bullied or harassed—say, if they’re not the right ‘fit’ for a costume. So we just want to show them that we’re here for them and available.”

Khodorkovsky and her crew are also trying to get the word out about their app, SafeUT. The app is free and confidential, and allows users to start chats with crisis counselors (all Masters-level clinicians), submit tips on cheating or bullying in their schools, access care or call crisis hotlines. ComicCon’s size–as well as its diverse demographics–allowed Khodorkovsky and UNI to spread their net a little wider. Children come by with their parents, or college students come by with their friends. Some recognized the app, others just took a pamphlet. But the results speak for themselves. Every year, Khodorkovsky said, the numbers of those using the app go up. Today, there’s about 800 chats per month, along with 1100-1300 calls per month.

It seems, even at ComicCon, people are looking to take advantage of these types of resources. Joe Gorton, co-owner of eCounseling Essentials, noticed that need while at ComicCon for the past three years. Previously, Gorton only came to the convention to put on a mental health panel, addressing issues by putting them in a framework well-known to con-goers: the lives of superheroes. Gorton’s talk this year—”Break to Belonging”—was about how every superhero has “moments of brokenness, and they go on to belonging through a process of transformation, which is a therapy process as well,” he said.

“When we do these panels, there’s so many people that come up to us and talk about their own personal struggles, or what they’ve been through. I always felt like having a presence here would be important, because people need to know our resources are out there, and what ways they can connect to people and what they’re going through,” said Gorton.

This year, Gorton set up a booth for his online therapy company, eCounseling Essentials. The platform offers secure, HIPPA-compliant therapy with a licensed therapist. Gorton says the freedom of online therapy makes people feel more comfortable, and the broadness of the company’s scope–nationwide, although eCounseling Essentials is based in Utah–allows for the formation of therapy and support groups.

“You can see you’re not alone,” says Gorton. “A lot of people have thanked us for the work that we do and told us how neat it is. I’ve heard people’s stories. Yesterday a couple stories really moved me. So I’m really glad that we’re here.”

For the Utah Pride Center, ComicCon gives an opportunity to reach out to a larger community of people who know what it’s like to feel “different”. At their booth, pamphlets about suicide prevention, or about how to find an accepting community and live your authentic experience, abound.

“I think there are a lot of communities that could benefit from having more mental health resources. I don’t think there’s ever enough,” said Jimmy Lee, youth program manager at Utah Pride Center. “I think about how there are still a lot of suicides. We still see the thought [of suicidal ideation] as a very common experience. That’s really pervasive in a lot of different communities—obviously in LGBTQ spaces, but obviously in any community where there’s othering or feelings of ‘I’m different.'”

While Utah Pride Center and UNI were both invited years ago by the founders of ComicCon to establish their presence at the convention, all three companies have enjoyed the response they’ve recieved at the convention and intend to come back. Khodorkovsky said that UNI completely ran out of materials on Thursday alone, and Gorton said he’s gotten offers from other licensed therapists to join eCounseling Essentials already.

“We all struggle with similar things, but I also think those who are more creatively minded tend to feel more isolated and tend to experience their emotions on a different level than a lot of people,” said Gorton. “There’s a sense of ‘I don’t really know how to connect with people the way I experience things’. We’re here to say ‘That’s ok, and that’s normal. And we can talk about that.'”