In 2017, Larchmont native Zach Schleien experienced a personal tragedy when a close family friend, Louis Hjerpe, died while suffering from both schizoaffective and bipolar disorder. It was a huge loss, but one many Americans are familiar with: At the time, the quoted number of people living in the U.S. with mental health issues was 18% (Schleien says the number is closer now to 20 or even 25%).
That tragedy — and that figure — became the impetus for Schleien’s new project. Founded that same year, 18percent is a live peer-to-peer support network for anyone dealing with mental health issues, based off of an instant messaging app many office workers are already familiar with, Slack.
Featured by the likes of The Washington Post and FOX News, the nonprofit offers a community of understanding, supportive ears around the world to people living with addiction, anxiety, depression, dissociative disorder, eating disorders, impulse control and OCD issues, mood disorders, gender-specific and LGBTQ+ issues, and even offers support options for family/friends/caregivers, veterans, and more.
We sat down with Schleien to see what went into creating such an innovative public resource.
So you were working at Johnson & Johnson when Louis died. Can you tell us a little about how this all started?
Louis was a close family friend when I was growing up in Florida — I grew up outside Miami; I was eight when I moved to Larchmont — really close with his brothers and our parents were best friends. At the age of 19 Louis was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. He was very musically talented, into sports, did really great in school, and then the symptoms came out really unexpectedly.
Three years later he went for a walk and he didn’t come home, and they found his remains near a river. He would get sometimes extremely manic, so he could have just been manic and ran into the river thinking whatever he was thinking and it was a pretty dangerous river to be in. After Louis’ accident I got really involved in mental health. Before that, I really had very little connection to the field.
What was the motivation behind founding 18percent? What specifically led you to select an online P2P support network?
After Louis passed I felt really bad for his family, his parents especially, and I decided to raise money for a non-profit, NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness. I asked his dad if it would be okay to do it in Louis’ honor. I ended up raising a total of $40,000, $10,000 for NAMI New Jersey, and $30,000 for NAMI El Dorado, where his family is currently living.
The first project was to train parents who have teens with mental illness, and the second was called the Family-to-Family Program, which was to train families. About 650 families trained, where at least one member of the family had some sort of mental health condition.
Especially in lower income areas, mental illness is so hard because you don’t have the money; there’s not much support. It’s an invisible disease, so its very hard and you get frustrated at your child for acting a certain way.
This program trains the members of your family to better support you. Fred, Louis’ dad, got really involved with NAMI out in El Dorado, to a point where now he’s on their board and that really helped with his own healing. What I realized was often times when you give back, it really helps with your own healing.
What are some of the benefits to the platform as opposed to, say, a call-in service or a message board?
One of my closest friends by the name of Dave Markavich, he runs the largest online marketing Slack community. David was like, “Why don’t we do the same thing I do in my marketing community and apply it to mental health?”
So many businesses are on Slack, it’s really easy for people now to be at a place of work, during their 9-to-5, and jump onto a chat. They’re already on Slack, so it’s not a new service or tool. And their manager just sees that they’re on Slack. Our hope is that managers would create a culture to say “It’s okay to get mental help for it.” I think our culture is sort of getting into that direction.
What’s really cool about Slack is that we also have automation. On the registration we ask, “Are you actively suicidal, yes or no?” If you say yes, we refer you out to the national suicide lifeline but if you say no, you’re invited into the community. We take that really seriously and that’s why we have automation: It provides a crisis plan.
We are not healthcare professionals but we do have moderators; the goal is not to play doctor but rather just to make sure the community is safe and people are following the code of conduct — no bullying, no trolling, things of that nature — but we also have the automation bot for that reason as well.
Why peer to peer? When you help others it really helps with your own feelings. We created a culture [where] someone goes in looking for help, but as soon as a day later, a month later, people start providing help.
Who can join 18percent?
80% [of our users are] U.S. based, but the other 20% is from many, many countries. It’s 16 and up because Slack’s terms and services require you to be 16 and older, but we have a teen chat if you are a teen and an over-30 chat if you are over 30, so you try and join a channel that identifies with a mental health condition or your age or interest.
How can someone wanting to do more than just chat get involved with 18percent?
Sometimes people ask to be a moderator and if they’re super engaged and really helping we’re always happy to ask them to be a moderator. I really look for people who are super-empathetic. I’ve gone through suicidal awareness, suicidal prevention training, but it’s important also to have a few people from the, people who help with design — who may not want to be a moderator but just help with the actual website and outreach.
People can help just by spreading the word. We created posters — one for your work and one if you go to school — so just by putting that out there can potentially really impact someone’s life.
What other services does 18percent provide access to, besides chat-based counseling?
Sometimes we do Q&As where we’ll bring in guest speakers, people from lifelines, and they’ll just talk about their stories. We also offer online therapy. It’s really neat. For the first month it’s $1 and after that $60 a month. What we offer is unlimited virtual therapy with a licensed therapist, and you can also see a psychiatrist.
A lot of people in their support group, we’ll ask, “Hey, are you seeing a therapist?” and they’re like, “I can’t even afford one.” Out of pocket it can be easily upwards of a $100 to $150 bucks per session. I think it’s really helpful to be unlimited for $60 a month; it’s a win-win and it really just helps continue to spread the message and reach out to people. You can either do a phone call or video; you can also get a TeleDoc. All 3 are included: therapy, psychiatry, or TeleDoc. It’s pretty awesome.
What would you like the ultimate goal and legacy of 18percent to be?
Right now, when you’re in crisis you’ll think of the national suicide hotline or the national text line, which are incredible services. But some of those people are just at work, super stressed out, they have a meeting coming up or a presentation or maybe just broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend and they can’t see a therapist at that hour. We want 18percent to be that brand, that platform, that you go on at any time of day and get that support you need. It’s not a replacement for therapy but it’s just kind of to take off the extra anxiety of going through the day-to-day.
We get a lot of our referrals from the hotline. Often times people who reach out to the hotlines are not suicidal [but] they can call three to five times day, which is a major issue because now the people who are high-risk can potentially be on hold. Now these hotlines are referring people to 18percent so they can focus on the high-risk. There’s a lot of players in the game, in mental health. We actually encourage that; we want more because it can save lives.