Self-Isolation Is Exacerbating Mental Health Issues. A Portland Startup Aims to Help.

Most of her life, McKenna Dempsey has battled depression, anxiety and severe mood instability. A single conversation changed her understanding of herself—and she wants to use tech to impart that idea to teenagers.

Willamette Week presents "Distant Voices," a daily video interview for the era of social distancing. Our reporters are asking Portlanders what they're doing during quarantine.

When McKenna Dempsey was 19, she asked her father a question that would set the path of her life up to now: "Why am I crazy?"

"He said, 'You're not crazy, you're just complex,'" she says. "And it completely changed how I think about mental health."

To that point, Dempsey, 29, now a project manager at a Portland web developer, had struggled to comprehend what was going on inside her brain. Most of her life, she's battled depression, anxiety and severe mood instability. In high school, she suffered a psychotic break and spent time in a psychiatric facility.

That single conversation with her father shifted her understanding of herself. And that message—that you're not crazy, or broken, but complex—is an idea she wants to impart to teenagers going through their own mental health struggles.

With her startup Kamber, she hopes to give young people some of the tools she didn't have growing up. The app, which is out for beta testing this week, combines several coping strategies and educational platforms in one place.

Users can set intentions and goals for each day. If someone is experiencing a moment of high anxiety, they can press a button to access breathing exercises. If the crisis is more intense, it can quickly connect them to suicide prevention hotlines. There are educational platforms, art therapy programs and stabilization techniques.

"We're not trying to change them, we're not trying to say there's anything wrong with them," Dempsey says. "We're just giving them the tools to be who they are."

WW spoke to Dempsey about how tech has lagged behind in addressing mental health, how the pandemic is affecting adolescents, and how she is personally dealing with self-isolation.

Also: How is her cat holding up?

See more Distant Voices interviews here.

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