John Sciarretta’s voice rarely wavers, even as words pour out of him in a veritable flood.
“Hey, everyone, my name is John and I suffer from panic attack disorder, anxiety. I’m a hypochondriac. And right now, I’m getting migraines, and the winter depression — so seasonal depression,” he says, speaking into the camera of his cell phone, rattling off the issues that have plagued his mental health since he was a teenager.
“The best ways that I’m coping with that are sports, working out, and just keeping my mind busy,” he continues. “Staying active is my No. 1 thing. If I stay active, my mind stays busy, and that’s really what helps me. … That’s my No. 1 thing to feel calm and escape my mental illness for the day.”
The 28-year-old Norwalk resident and former Ridgefield High School athlete posted that video on Dec. 11 to an Instagram page he had created titled “the Mental Minute Project.”
Within 48 hours, the page would have more than 400 followers. In that time, four followers joined Sciarretta’s project and uploaded video stories of their own, describing what it was like to live with mental illness. They were posted from all over the country — from Denver and St. Augustine, Fla.
One 15-year-old girl emailed Sciarretta to thank him for his story. Before his video, she said, she had always assumed she was the only person to experience panic attacks.
One month later, and the Mental Minute Project has grown to more than 2,000 Instagram followers and has collected 12,000 views on videos submitted to the project. Sciarretta said he’s received submissions from six different countries and 22 states.
“That means that the awareness is there,” he said, about the project’s success. “It’s not easy to overcome that fear and submit a video.”
“It’s a community, we help each other — like yeah, I started it, but we’re a community. People are becoming friends; I know a lot of people in the live videos by their first name,” he added.
Part of the appeal of the project lies in its simplicity. Anyone who wants to upload a video to the page may email a 60-second clip to Sciarretta, talking about the mental health issues they live with, and what they do to cope, or just make life a little easier day to day.
He doesn’t pressure or cajole anyone to upload a video, Sciarretta said. That’s up to them.
While Sciarretta stressed that he is not a mental health worker — and has urged some of those who have posted to seek professional help — the project seems to have paid real dividends to those who have opened up on the channel, he told The Press.
One health worker in Texas claimed that the project helped a client who had been contemplating suicide, Sciarretta said.
“Sixty seconds, really, for me is a way for them to open up and maybe see that they’re not alone,” Sciarretta said.
He argued that speaking into a camera might be less intimidating than talking to someone in person.
The video format is important, he said, because so often people convey more through their body language and tone of voice that’s apparent in a video clip.
Besides panic attacks, Sciarretta said, he’s always been cursed — or blessed — with a wandering mind.
“Maybe my disease created this project,” he mused, while on the phone.
With the amount of content posted on the page, “it seems like we’ve been doing this for three months, but it’s really just John grinding away,” said Taylor Kazlauskas, Sciarretta’s friend who has been providing tech support and marketing advice to the Mental Minute Project.
“It’s like he’s done three months of work in the past 29 days.”
The pair have known each other since middle school.
Sciarretta said he’s often up until as late as 1 or 2 a.m., answering emails and uploading videos to the page.
By his own admission, Kazlauskas is more comfortable playing the man behind the scenes.
“I’m more of the background guy,” he said. “John is the face of the project.”
Kazlauskas said his main job is converting videos sent to the project’s email address to a format that Instagram will allow them to upload. He uses a variety of programs — mostly whatever he can find a free version of, since the pair are running the project in their spare time, and out of their own pockets.
At Kazlauskas’s suggestion, Sciarretta appeared in a video in which he spoke in front of a poster Sciarretta made for the project. He printed the design at a local Staples.
“The next thing we know, people are asking us for copies of the poster,” Kazlauskas recalled.
Kazlauskas said they have been inundated with requests from their followers asking for gear — signed posters, T-shirts, or their own version of the ubiquitous rubber Livestrong bracelets — or anything else with the project’s name on it.
“I don’t think he really understood how fast or successful it could be in such a short amount of time,” Kazlauskas said.
On the phone
Sciarretta still runs most of the program through his smartphone, Kazlauskas explained. That means he can upload and comment on videos wherever he may be on any given day.
One drawback the pair have encountered — working with video eats up a good deal of the data allowance on Sciarretta’s monthly phone bill.
In the future, both said, the project may need to look into a GoFundMe page or other online fund-raising efforts in order to pay for merchandising and software to keep the program alive. They’ve registered a domain name (www.mentalminuteproject.com), but for now, they’re running the page through Instagram, since they’re short on a Web developer.
If speaking to the Internet about mental health seems like an odd calling, well, Sciarretta has lived through odder — and harsher — circumstances.
After his father died at an early age, Sciarretta said, his mother began dating an ex-Marine who dealt drugs on the side.
“I was around drugs and alcohol from a very young age,” he told The Press.
Sciarretta said he spent a lot of time on the streets trying to get away from domestic violence.
Trouble at school followed. When he was 11 years old, the family moved to Ridgefield hoping for a fresh start.
For a time, Sciarretta said, things started to look up. He got involved in sports, with his mom helping to get him into Little League baseball. He played basketball and football and boxed. At one point in high school, he had as many as 12 letters from Division I schools eyeing him as a potential scholarship pick.
But eventually, Sciarretta said, he turned to alcohol to help him deal with panic attacks, which began to affect him around the age of 15.
“Alcohol was my saving grace for panic attacks — that was my medication,” he said.
After trouble with the law, and a stint of homelessness in his late teens, Sciarretta met the woman who would eventually become his fiancée. The relationship wouldn’t last, but it produced a daughter, who means the world to him. He has joint custody with her mother.
“That was really important to me, to be a good father,” he said, especially considering that he lost his own father at a young age.
‘A beautiful formula’
Since then his life has turned around.
He’s spoken publicly about his life story, including at the Purpose 2 Play sports journalism program in Harlem in 2015. At the time, Sciarretta was competing as a pro obstacle course runner, which prompted the public speaking event.
“At 15, these kids really knew what they wanted to do with their lives, whereas at 15, I was in jail,” Sciarretta said.
He’s in talks to speak at Caldwell University in New Jersey, and is contemplating writing a book. Friends say he’s naturally suited to speaking publicly.
“He will speak his mind, there’s no doubt about it,” said Kazlauskas. “He rarely, if ever, holds back. He doesn’t really have a filter, which is what makes it easy to talk to him, because you know you’ll get the straight answer.”
For his own part, Sciarretta has high hopes for the future of the project.
“It’s almost like with each video, people are building up their self-esteem,” he said. “It’s a beautiful formula is what I like to call it.”
Interested in the Mental Minute Project? Email John Sciarretta at firstname.lastname@example.org.