Why did you start The Haven?
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
My name is Zen, and I am the founder and owner of The Haven, a 501(c)3 nonprofit based out of New York, and I operate a Discord server online that was created July 15, 2017. My invaluable colleague Ghostbot works as my co-pilot and general savior. HavenBot is his brainchild. Even if you’ve never met him on the server, he is integral to everything. Say thanks if you see him!
We recently passed our two-year anniversary and reached about 6000 users, which got me thinking. How did we get here? Why am I still doing this? People ask me in the chat all the time, “Hey Zen, why did you start The Haven?”
I usually think, “Well, because it wasn’t there.”
Mental illness can leave you feeling isolated and alone. There is so much stigma around mental health and we hear it constantly. We internalize it. We are afraid to talk about it. We feel ashamed because of what we feel. But that doesn’t have to be the case. I refuse to go quietly.
A few years ago, I broke my neck and back in a suicide attempt. It came after years of frustration with my own mental illness, miscarriages, heartbreak, and several other suicide attempts. I’ve always been outspoken about my mental health, and while I was in recovery I decided that I wanted to use and share my personal experience. Maybe others could avoid some of the hardships and struggles that I went through. Maybe I could actually help someone. At least then I would feel like it all meant something. The cliché is not lost on me, I promise.
I spent years in and out of hospitals, dragged around by manic and depressive episodes, and unable to study or work. Many of those hospitalizations were traumatic, and have left me with a lingering fear of being hospitalized.
I’ve done a number of different types of therapy, including electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and my life has improved significantly. Yes, ECT is shock therapy. No, it’s not like it was back in the day. They put you under general anesthesia and you can’t feel a thing. Did you know that Princess Leia had ECT? She even wrote a book about it. Yes, my memory was affected but it’s gotten a lot better.
Despite all that, I am now in a stable place. My medications work. I am back in school pursuing a master’s in social work and working as part of my field placement. I did not do this alone. I had extensive professional help. I also had my friends, who are there for me no matter what. And I had the internet.
When I was younger, I found solace in chatrooms and forums dedicated to mental health. Today, platforms like Discord are offering ’90s-style chats for free, with thousands of your friends! (Some of these servers have 100s of thousands of members!!) Discord, though intended originally for gamers, has been embraced by all sorts of organizations and fandoms, including the mental health community.
I found a few mental health servers when I was first looking for one. I didn’t know where to search, honestly. I ended up moderating on a small server for a while, but eventually left because I had ideas of my own. That was when, at the behest of a friend, I created The Haven.
Having an understanding community can be very powerful. Learning from others can lessen the anxiety of a new situation. It can help relieve feelings of loneliness and isolation. I decided I wanted to take advantage of these positives, and, like others before me, try to create a server where peers with mental illness could communicate with one another without stigma or judgement. Who better to seek advice from than someone who has been there themselves and come out the other side?
My experiment was The Haven, and it is brought to you by Reddit. The first place I advertised it was in /r/bpd. We got quite a few members that way. I expanded to several other subreddits and posted regularly for a while, but then I shifted to ads on Google and Instagram instead. Slowly but surely, people trickled in.
When I started The Haven my intention was to lean on the power of peer support. I think talking to professionals is wonderful and can be very helpful, but not everyone has access to a professional or wants to talk to one. But talking to someone you identify with can demystify the circumstances you find yourself in, especially tricky mental health ones, and offer hope.
Members of The Haven have helped me enormously, and I have made lasting friendships. With the chat there 24/7, I am never alone. Even when I’m up at 4am for no good reason, my European and Oceanic friends are there to chat with. I can only hope that others find the same type of respite.
Peer support isn’t perfect. The server is far from perfect. But we are trying everything we know how to do because at the end of the day all any of us (the Team) wants to do is help people get by.
I will emphasize that we are not an alternative to crisis lines. We are not currently equipped to handle that, and will refer people in active crisis to suicide hotlines and other crisis services.
In summary, The Haven exists because I am gloriously, mentally ill, I’m a nerd who loves chatrooms, and I believe that peer support can change lives.
Mental illness is a wild ride by itself. There’s no reason you have to do it alone.
In addition to supporting the Discord chat, the nonprofit aims to help people access mental healthcare in the real world.