Satvik Sethi, a rising sophomore at SUNY Binghamton, is an international student from India who’s working to create a supportive community for people struggling with mental illness, both digitally and on his campus.
To do so, Sethi is in the process of designing “Runaway,” an app where people who are suffering with mental illness can find support and be heard. I had the opportunity to talk to Sethi about the program, including why he decided to build such a product, and what he hopes to do with technology and philanthropy in the future.
Otis Roffman: You have an impressive resume for someone just finishing their freshman year of college. According to “Pipe Dream,” you’ve had five different internships and have worked as a chief operating officer at a start-up. Could you describe some of that work?
Satvik Sethi: I undertook my first internship when I was sixteen, and it was because my parents are in the corporate world, and it always fascinated me. I always knew it would be an environment I would enjoy working in. From there, I started reaching out to a lot of places to see if they had any opportunities. When one surfaced, I made the best of the opportunity in front of me; I kept applying and have been working every break since then.
It was sometime last year that someone approached me with the opportunity of a start-up. It was basically focused around journalism, wherein we would summarize articles in about fifty words, so it was easier for people to read them and stay updated with the news. He initially took me on as the editor for the music industry, and I would write articles pertaining to music, but because he thought that I had a lot of insight in terms of business growth and marketing, he slowly started noticing me more and eventually gave me the role of chief operating officer.
I’ve also interned with a few social service organizations. I interned with Kailash Satyarthi, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. I’ve really been interested in social service, and I did a lot of it in high school. I was part of the Round Square, an international organization that promotes social service and social awareness. I’ve always tried to do things to make a positive impact.
OR: How did you come up with Runaway?
SS: Throughout middle school, I’d seen a lot of my friends self-harm and be severely upset without having someone to talk to. I would be the person who they would confide in and talk to about their problems. Then, one night, I was on Instagram and accidentally came across an image of someone self-harming. So, as someone who’d been offering support and advice to my friends, I immediately reached out to this stranger online and told them that if they needed someone to talk to, that I was there to listen—and just like that, they reached out to me and told me about their struggles. That night, I spoke to about six people and continued to talk to them until they felt better.
Over the last three years, I’ve spoken to about a one hundred fifty people through Instagram and Facebook. I realized that I couldn’t talk to that many people at the same time alone because it would take a lot of time, but also because it was emotionally taxing for me to hear about that much pain and see that many people upset.
So, I took a step back and thought about how I could reach out to more people and how I could help. That’s when I thought of establishing a mental health community, which is what I aspire for Runway to eventually be one day. I also wanted to show people how simple it is to help others through effective communication, as long as you’re willing to reach out and listen and that’s something I’m really trying to promote.
OR: What is the Runaway project exactly?
SS: Going forward with Runaway, we have a few modules. One is the app we’re working on. So far, I haven’t found a developer for it, but I’m sure I will once the word starts to get out. The app is going to allow volunteers to talk to our users. The users will go into the app and they’ll get paired with a volunteer, and the volunteer will just do the same thing I was doing with these people, which was to listen to their problems and give them a safe space to talk about everything that is bothering them.
The second module is going to be a positivity zone that will be on the Runaway website, which will be filled with positive poetry, positive quotes and art, pictures and happy music. Just a place where if someone is feeling sad, they can come online and really try and cheer themselves up with those things.
The final module is going to be events. I’m looking to host a lot of events and workshops this semester around the Binghamton campus, and hopefully after that, go on to different schools and colleges to talk about mental health and promote mental health awareness, as well as how people can help if they see cases of mental illnesses emerging in people around them.
OR: Would you describe the app as a community of users helping other users, or one where users are being helped by volunteers?
SS: Users come, meaning people who need someone to talk to, and volunteers help by listening to them, but the broader goal, for Runaway as a whole, is to be a community for people to help each other out and promote mental health awareness.
I get a lot of emails from people almost every week who’ve seen the website or stumbled across the social media pages, like the cause and want to help out and be a part of it. So, I just respond with: “Tell me what you want to do and how you want to help and we’ll get you on board.”
Recently, our team has expanded. In the last two weeks, we’ve added about eight new people. I was looking for people to mainly help me with marketing and development, but their response was, “We want to help you find more posts for your social media platforms,” so I said, “Why not come on as a content aggregator and find contacts for me?” I really want to make a community where people are inclined toward the mission and the general idea of Runaway, that they want to come on-board and help people out—instilling a sense of community, if you will.
OR: You’ve said that you and your volunteer team don’t call yourselves professionals. Why did you decide against that?
SS: For me, from the very start, even the people that I initially spoke to on Instagram, the ones I would find and talk to, I never spoke to them in the capacity of a professional counselor or a therapist, simply because I’m not one. All I was trying to be was a friend.
For example, if you have a friend and you know they’re upset, the natural thing that you would do, as their friend, is talk to them and try to help them out to the best of your abilities, and that’s exactly what I was doing. I felt that instead of calling ourselves mental health professionals or psychologists, it was much simpler to be friends and people who would help someone out in the capacity that a friend would. It not only adds to the positive approach in terms of being friendly and approachable, but it instills some sort of comfort in the users, knowing that they’re going to be free of judgment and free of any inhibitions.
OR: Sometimes that’s enough for that moment.
SS: Exactly, and some people are very skeptical about going to professionals, simply because they don’t feel comfortable enough seeking help from them; that’s why the anonymity that Runaway brings in really works with people, and I think that’s going to be one of the keys to our success.
OR: You’ve said the tentative release date for the Runaway app is 2018. What’s necessary now to make that deadline?
SS: I think our main concern has been that we haven’t been able to find an app developer. For now, every volunteer that we have working with us is working in an unpaid capacity, just because everything that’s going into Runaway is from my own savings and I don’t really have the financial capacity to pay people to work for me.
Next semester, we’re planning to host a few fundraisers, and hopefully that should be enough to get an app developer on board. Then depending on how long it takes them, I’d say sometime late 2018 is when we’re expecting the app to come out, after a few rounds of beta testing.