He’s Helping Mental Health Through Coding: Zachary Jordan

Zachary Jordan, a junior philosophy major with messy dark hair and a small black earring in his left ear, often spends five to ten hours a day coding a colored shape moving back and forth on a screen. He’s creating a company around a web-based app to make therapy techniques and data more accessible to patients. The working title of the company is Orenda (although the name is likely to change). Orenda aims to offer software that enables users to improve their mental health through features such as guided meditation or journaling. Users can track their progress in various ways, such as graphing changes in subjective measurements of progress (rankings of thoughts from 1-10, for example). Perhaps Orenda’s most interesting feature, however, is a form of therapy called EMDR.

EMDR (which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) involves a rhythmic and side-to-side stimulus, such as that colored shape moving back and forth on a screen. The stimulus, along with prompts from a professional therapist, can help patients enter a mental state similar to REM sleep where they are better able to process associations around their experience of trauma or mental illness. 

The therapy has encountered some controversy over the years, but is practiced in many places as treatment for PTSD, among other conditions. If therapists choose to use equipment for the therapy, the available options can be expensive and unsophisticated. Jordan aims with Orenda to make EMDR equipment more accessible to therapists and customizable for their patients.

Making EMDR treatment more accessible has had personal meaning for Jordan. Jordan’s stepmother passed away this past fall, when he was studying abroad in Amsterdam. “My dad couldn’t go in his room [where he found his wife], couldn’t go in his house.…The one thing he said allowed him to come back into his house was an EMDR session with his therapist,” said Jordan. “That’s motivating.”

The beginnings of Orenda had been floating around in Jordan’s head for a while, but his stepmother’s passing and father’s therapy experience spurred him into action. Ironically, during his initial months coding his mental health app in Amsterdam, Jordan stayed up late into the night to keep working. Back in the states he’s been able to slow down a bit, but still has occasional days where he clocks in as many as ten hours of coding. “There are obsessive days,” he acknowledged. “There are stupid, Zach-you-need-to-chill days.”

Orenda isn’t Jordan’s first time coding an app aimed at mental health. At age 16 he decided to create a simple, customizable version of EMDR online. He called his website Easy EMDR, and posted the link on Reddit. “It was on—it sounds dumb—but Reddit’s front page, and a lot of people see that,” he said. Easy EMDR has since gained over 350,000 views, according to Jordan’s website.

Jordan said that the views on Reddit allowed his project to jump closer to the top of Google searches, which meant a steady stream of new users. He also got hundreds of messages on Reddit, where users were able to thank him and help him improve his website. Some were from experts that he is able to contact about his current work on Orenda. “I got a lot of helpful feedback,” said Jordan. “There was some criticism initially from people who were worried that I wasn’t being explicit enough that you shouldn’t do [EMDR therapy] without a therapist, so I’m glad I got that initial feedback. [But] most of it has been very positive.”

Jordan’s “Easy EMDR” website, with a pink stimulus

Posting on Reddit and maintaining a personal website have been two of the ways Jordan has been able to promote his plethora of other projects. If you scroll down his website (which he, of course, designed himself), you see a link to his streetwear company, an app he coded to contextualize global crises and offer vetted charities, an interactive exploration of the Mariana Trench, and six other projects he has since put on hold but might return to. That’s before you even get to his contract work designing websites. And when you talk to Jordan about his current project, you see him light up: he accents his words, his eyes get wide, his gestures increase. It becomes clear that there’s a huge passion behind the prolificacy.

Jordan hopes to release a web version of Orenda, as well as a mobile app. He began working on the project about six months ago; he received funding from the Live It fund to work on his project this past January, and now has funding from MacStartups to work on the project this summer with a fellow student. Jordan spent about ten minutes showing me the various features he is working on: there will be individual user accounts, a huge amount of EMDR customization (including the ability to change the color, size, shape, and speed of the stimulus), as well as various other features and displays of data.

Jordan feels conflicted about having to charge for Orenda to sustain his work on it, and hopes to offer discounts to therapists and those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it. Aside from the percentage of his personal funds Jordan gives away every month, Jordan wants Orenda to commit to donating a monthly portion of revenue to a charitable cause, likely mental health-related. “There’s another advantage to income,” said Jordan, “and that’s that you can give it away.” 

Jordan has a lot of big plans, and a high bar to which he holds both himself and his company. But he never sounds daunted. “I feel stupid determined,” he said. “I feel like I have to do this.”

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