In unity lies empathy & positivity

Jovanny Varela-Ferreyra chooses mental health over everything else

Jovanny Varela-Ferreyra, The Artidote, mental illness

Jovanny Varela-Ferreyra chose Berlin.

To demolish the fear-fuelled walls within him, the arts graduate who lived in America moved to the German capital and arts hub.

As the 25-year-old began to prove to himself that he had grown beyond the fear of visiting his 10-year-old shrivelled, bullied self, he also began building an artistic space on the side, not limited to himself, or the city.

This virtual pocket, first started as a work-related Facebook page of curated artworks and quotes, and then cultivated on other social media platforms, gradually drew in people around the world in millions.

It even saved lives.

It formed ‘The Artidote’, in May 2015.

Jova, the name more known, maintains that ‘it is a safe space to empathise, tell stories, and heal through art’, and ‘a community that has grown into a global support group’.

In numbers, The Artidote has two-billion-strong takers on Facebook, 500k on Instagram, 10k on Snapchat, and 475k on Twitter.

“And India has the third-largest community. That tells me something… there are a lot of people here. (No, I’m kidding). It tells me that there is a need for spaces where people can talk about mental health and express vulnerability, and, there might be spaces that exist, but are fractured,” Jova, 30, explained. He would know...

In 2016, Jova asked on SnapChat, ‘What time is it there, and what are you thinking?’ And the community sent him time-stamped, pictorial revelations of stories of both the ordinary and the rare, of hope and despair, but all too real. He played the posts back to them as a series. 

As this developed into the SnapThoughts project, Jova realised its impact when ‘the girl from Delhi’ shared a post about taking her life and the community rescued her with messages of positivity and empathy.

“These SnapThoughts come from different parts of the worlds…they reveal so much about the society, culture, lives of people who are going through issues of the same nature. When you access these different views, you become empathetic and understand people better. It shows we are in this 
together.”

In the same breath, he stressed, “Mind you, I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist. I’m an artist, and feel people’s energies. Another advantage I now have is I have listened to many stories over the last three years. I’ve learnt how to approach such situations better. My job is to be the best vessel of The Artidote.”

The curator said this in Bengaluru recently. He spoke at a summit and also met up with the Artidotees.  

Among them, 30-year-old photographer Pratik Bruno expressed that when his anxiety and the physical unease of his neurological birth injury try to take him down, he understands that he is not alone in his discomfort, thanks to TheArtidote, and that it changes his perspective of seeing his own problems. There was Pooja S (22) who, in her new grasp of The Artidote, marvelled at the everyday reality made better by social media for once.  

Amid the talking and listening, the community heard from Jova about The Artidote’s way forward, its reach into the offline world. The city was chosen to launch the pilot chapter that would grow safe spaces through workshops, classes and programmes to reach out to anyone who needs support and also less-fortunate kids. “If I can gather enough people to care about this online, they will be responsible for helping their immediate physical community, going across class lines, to those who don’t have access to The Artidote,” he added.

The Artidote first took three-four hours of Jova’s day, now “the passion project” consumes most of his time, and he carries it out along with guiding tourists in Munich. Even the logo of The Artidote, the face of a bull, marks his shoulder as a tattoo. And

Jova’s role in it all has been chiselled with experience: “To just listen. To realise what feelings are mine and what feelings are others’. Else, I might take emotions that don’t belong to me and collapse because they’ll drain me. And I would be doing a disservice if I empathise too much. That’s not allowing the other person to grow.”

This champion of empathy and self-expression believes people don’t express their fears and vulnerability because they don’t like being judged. The problem, he says, “is it’s a societal construct. But when people express themself, others go ‘that happened to me as well. I thought I was alone.’ It’s a bit like the elevator situation, when one of the two strangers says, ‘this is awkward’, and that has to be said for the other person to reply, ‘yeah, this is bloody awkward. But it’s normal, right?’”

As Jova strides to enable discussions of mental health in real life, there is The Artidote online. Available in all doses.

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