When someone receives a terrifying medical diagnosis, often the hardest part is the feeling of being all alone. Michael Porath ’97 and his wife have experienced this moment twice in their lives. In 2009, they received news that their unborn son was missing an organ and their two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with 15q syndrome, a rare chromosome disorder.
Fortunately, Porath and his family did not have to go through the daunting ordeal of caring for two children with serious medical conditions alone. They were able to connect with other families dealing with similar situations and share their experiences, get advice and just feel understood.
“What helped us the most was connecting with other people,” said Porath. “It wasn't waking up every day and reading Web MD, but actually finding other folks that were in our shoes.”
Paying it forward
Inspired by the help and support he received from complete strangers, Porath founded The Mighty, a digital health community aimed at empowering and connecting people who face health challenges and disabilities.
“It’s really a network of people who are not so much friends and family, but are strangers who have a bond over some kind of health condition that they're facing,” he said.
The Mighty started as a news website with Porath and a few others writing three stories a day about people facing health issues. Today, The Mighty has grown into a community of over three million members and 50,000 stories. On average, its content gets over 100 million views a month. It has also developed a social media network where members can share experiences and help one another any time of day.
However, The Mighty isn’t just a news outlet and social media site. It also assists major institutions with research. Last year, in collaboration with Harvard, The Mighty studied how its content and social networking affected users with suicidal ideations. At the end of the six-month study, researchers found that The Mighty reduced suicidal ideations among users who had suicidal thoughts.
“That was a big moment for us,” Porath said. “To be able to show on a scientific basis the platform that we've built and the services that we provide truly benefit people in a very real way was a great feeling.”
While The Mighty community is important at all times, it has become increasingly valuable with the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19. Like with other health issues, The Mighty has sought to understand how coronavirus has affected people and share those experiences. What is different is that The Mighty is now providing services and information for an issue that is affecting everybody in the world.
“We think the best role we can play is covering the issue not just from the health or economic standpoint, but really the human story behind what's happening,” Porath said.
The Mighty currently conducts weekly surveys to understand the impact the pandemic is having around the country and shares the statistics with the public. The site also publishes several stories a day to supplement the statistics from its surveys and give a face to the effect the pandemic is having.
In addition to giving people a better sense of the epidemic and its effects, The Mighty has also hosted virtual support groups to help people dealing with anxiety and depression as a result of the pandemic.
“A lot of emphasis has been placed on social distancing, but people are naturally social and want to connect with other people,” Porath said. “What we’re doing is providing a platform for people to talk and connect in a safe way.”
The Mighty’s virtual support groups have been so successful, particularly among health care workers, that demand has skyrocketed for those programs. In response, The Mighty has increased the number of virtual events it hosts and has also been working with various partners to expand events past the point it could handle on its own.
“What The Mighty does well is bring people together,” said Porath, “and the most helpful events have been peer support groups; people helping each other and talking their way through living in a different reality than we were just a few weeks ago.”