I have a guest-written blog article today and I’m excited for you to read it. I met a pair of interesting guys while traveling in San Francisco, working on something called Campfire. Daniel and Benjamin are two tech-types who are attacking a problem that we can all appreciate, albeit in our own way. We sat in a coffee shop in a part of SF that I was definitely not cool enough to be in and had an amazing chat about community and innovation. Here you go:
The problem we're trying to address with Campfire is not only big, but a hard one to get your arms around. About 1 in 5 folks struggle with their mental health in a given year. And mental illness is the biggest area we spend money on in our health system. Yet it feels like most people who could use help don’t get it.
But that’s just one side of the coin. How many of us have a personal problem that weighs on us, but might not fall into the category of mental health? The grief of losing a loved one? The anguish of feeling fundamentally different from others? The frustration of dealing with a physical challenge that others can’t get? This group most likely dwarfs the first. We wouldn’t be surprised if it included you.
Often the worst part of dealing with such a challenge is feeling lonely in fighting it. Loneliness is a big deal, since we are inherently social creatures. More evidence is showing that loneliness is unhealthy not only psychologically, but also in a biological sense. It might be as big a health risk as smoking or heart disease. So many of us are lonely today in general, but especially in fighting our own personal battles. Really it doesn’t need to be that way, since there are tons of people going through whatever bothers you right now.
We think that we can use technology to help, having been inspired by old school support groups and the “sharing economy” theme (Daniel was with Airbnb from early on).
Campfire’s mission is to make it easy for any of us to tap into a support group of people who are dealing with the same challenge we are. You get to know your group of say 5-10 people during video chat sessions weekly. But you also have a private chat group where you can connect at any time, to reach out for help when it’s needed, or just to enjoy relating with people who get your deepest parts.
There’s a host to facilitate the experience, but really it’s about letting the members help each other out. Part is catharsis - the great feeling of bearing your soul to real people who care (folks often cite this as a prime benefit of therapy). Part is getting emotional support from those going through the same journey. And some people like hearing the advice and experiences of their peers.
First we spent weeks of research visiting support groups and talking with people to understand their needs. Then, we tested out the service in a pilot. The results so far have been really encouraging. The video call experience seems to be working much better than one might expect, and some people actually told us they preferred video to meeting in person! But more importantly, people were brave enough to share their challenges, and felt connected to the others, often even in the first meeting.
Some touching experiences emerged from the groups. For example, one member was dealing with the recent and sudden death of her spouse. Living in a section of the country out of reach of most services and community, she really appreciated being able to get help from the comfort of her couch, and within sight of her child.
Campfire teamed up with a nonprofit, ANAD, for its eating disorder groups. ANAD liked it so much they think that such virtual groups are the future. Laura, ANAD's Executive Director, has seen many peer support groups during her tenure at ANAD, and she was especially excited to see that the online Campfire groups are the most truly diverse set of people she's ever witnessed. She thinks that they could not only reach more people than before, but also that the benefit could be even stronger when we can connect to those who might have superficial differences from us, but are the same where it counts.
So it looks like a good start. I wish Daniel and Benjamin well and thought it would be nice to spread the word by telling some of their story here. If this speaks to you, I’d encourage you to sign up on their website, since they’re getting the next round of groups ready. It can feel like a dark cold world out there and this approach certainly can’t solve our problems, but it gives a warm feeling to know that we don’t have to be lonely in dealing with them. If you’re interested to get in touch with the team directly you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.