Julian Sarafian, Harvard Law Grad, Mental Health Champion
After working hard to get into and graduate from Harvard Law School, Julian Sarafian quickly found himself burned out and unhappy on an otherwise 'successful' career path. Julian talks to the Industry Leaders about why he quit his job in corporate law to focus on his mental health, how he built a community of thousands on social media telling his story, and gives advice for young people who set the bar high for themselves.
Can you tell us a little about who you are and what you do?
I'm Julian Sarafian. I used to be a corporate attorney.
I graduated law school in 2018 and worked for a couple of years after that, but I burnt out during the pandemic, so I redirected my attention onto mental health. I quit my job about eight weeks ago when I realised that I had a lot more to work on than I had previously thought.
We are still fighting this massive stigma with mental health.
I've struggled with asking for help whenever I have needed it my whole life. The most shocking thing for me was how I thought I had it all figured out, and I had a picture-perfect resume to back that up. I’ve been on this conveyor belt for so long: since I was 17 years old, I thought that I would go to law school and then get a job, earn money, etc. And now that I’ve finally reached it all, I have no idea what I want to do. But I do know that I'm miserable.
Since then, it's been a crazy adventure, posting everywhere on the internet about mental health awareness, creating a TikTok, writing a book, and working on content creation.
What does your day-to-day work involve?
It’s a mix of advocacy through my community on LinkedIn and TikTok, and posting on Instagram. That’s where most of my energy has been going, apart from spending a couple of hours here and there editing my book, which I'm hoping to get out in the next year.
The book is all about my personal story with mental health, examining how anxiety shaped my behaviour and ways of thinking in ways that I didn't understand until recently. I overlay my story with a broader narrative on mental health within our society. It’s not a research-based book, though, but more speculative, based on my experiences and ideas relating to mental health.
What gets you excited about what you do?
Before going through my own mental health journey, I'd only ever received positive reinforcement from our world for everything that I’d done: gaining a great degree and a great job with great pay. So when I slowly unwrapped these layers of anxiety and depression, it really hit me that if I was suffering, and had been suffering for so long, how many people could be out there suffering as well, without knowing it. What excites me the most is using my voice to reach out to even one person who could be suffering, and let them hear my message. That's why I'm doing it.
How did you manage to build your community on LinkedIn and Tik Tok?
I wish I could tell you! I spend more hours than I would like to admit trying to understand these algorithms, and I still have no idea how they work. I think the community there doesn't really reflect my own work and expertise as much as it does people's desire and a yearning for some sort of leadership in this mental health arena.
My first initial boost of engagement came from my own story on TikTok. It was a video of me just talking to the camera for three minutes about my story. It wasn't me dancing around or talking about Harvard Law School. Posts like those do fine, but what got me my following was me talking about my story — this really reflects how many people are out there currently suffering. There's a lot of people out there that don't have answers, and a lot of people out there that want some, but, right now, as a society, we're failing to give them any.
I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that we live in an imperfect world. There is a gap in our collective knowledge: how does mental health work, and where is the conversation heading?
Why do you think many people, and more specifically at universities, don't reach out for help when they are struggling?
I think this is a multifaceted problem.
I've struggled with asking for help when I’ve needed it my whole life. I think that part of that is due to a character trait certain folks have: we don't want to be a burden to others; we don't know how to ask for help. In the end, we shoot ourselves in the foot because we should be asking for help — other people ask for help, and we give it to them, and we're happy to do it.
Irrational thinking leads to us viewing ourselves as burdens when, in reality, the people around us are there to love and support us. And that includes the resources available to us at a university. I think the bigger problem for people not seeking help at universities results from the fact that we still are fighting against this massive stigma with mental health.
The pandemic has actually reshaped a lot of it, though, to the extent that it’s becoming almost normal to talk more openly about mental health, but, by and large, culturally, we are still way behind where we need to be for promoting and incentivising things like talking about your mental health issues with friends casually or promoting and supporting people to go to mental health services at these universities.
A lot of the time, the services at universities respond semi-thoughtfully to these issues. For example, they'll create an organisational structure to handle it, which is better than nothing, but what's missing is constant messaging from leadership on the importance of using these resources. They need to lead by example by having professors, deans and presidents talk about it instead of sweeping it under the rug by leaving it up to the students to seek it out. Until that changes, I think people are naturally going to feel ashamed of the thought that they need to go to medical services.
Was there a turning point when you decided to use your voice to champion mental health?
I don't think there's been one particular moment — it's been a process. When I first quit my job, it was to focus on my own mental health. That was my priority, and it still is, but I saw, through my LinkedIn posts and through various other channels, that people need more of a leading voice right now, and I have a lot to say. So I think it's a good match.
The longer I’ve been a part of this process, the more devoted and committed I am to the issue because I keep finding more and more evidence of just how much we are screwing things up for ourselves. I do not say that lightly, because I know how much suffering is behind these mistakes. The response that I have received from the internet so far is that there are thousands of people who struggle with their own issues — for example, issues related to anxiety, and they went to doctor after doctor and no one could figure out what's wrong with them. We've all been in the same place where we think we're totally alone, and we have no idea what's going on. It's an informational gap. Clearly, there's something wrong there.
More than that, though, my community talks to me, and I’m slowly realising that this isn't just a problem with those who are in law, or those in the US, but it’s a global problem which affects every industry: pharmacy, dentistry, medicine, it's everywhere! It's an undiagnosed pandemic, in my opinion. They say that one in four members of Generation Z has depression. And that's probably an underrepresentation of the truth because we tend to under diagnose these things.
So, not only is it affecting every career and industry, but it's also taking over whole demographics. We’re living in an unprecedented time, where humans have been separated from each other for nearly two years, and we’ve been left to the mercy of digital screens that companies like Facebook and Instagram, Amazon and Netflix, etc. rely upon for profit. Their incentive isn't to improve or support your emotional health, their incentive is to get you on the screen.
Social media is thought by many to be ruining people's state of mind - yet you need it to tell your story to others. How do you make sense of this irony?
I don't like it. I don't like it at all.
What I've been experimenting with is how I can reach people, and what I’ve found is that social media is a means to an end. It's a form of messaging — that's all it is. The messages could be written in text, or as the caption to a photo, or they could be a message read aloud in a video, but, in the end, it all comes down to sending a message.
I don't disagree that using these platforms, ironically, is somewhat deleterious, because I'm promoting people to get on these platforms. All I can say is that, for now, I have to play on their turf in order to find my people. Then we can figure out what we want to do as a group. I don't really care about TikTo; I don't really care about LinkedIn; I don't really care about Facebook, and I don't really care about Instagram. And in five years’ time it’ll be another platform. That's not what's important to me. What's important to me is reaching out to folks, building that sense of community, and taking it wherever we want, where we think is best.
Some people try therapy and think the responses given by counsellors are often too formulaic and robotic. What is your experience?
It would be better if people saw therapy as a resource for them to leverage rather than a total solution. In reality, a therapist is just a coach for your mind, and, like any coach, they're there as a resource for you to use, not a magical quick fix. You should be leveraging them, not the other way around. That's the key to gaining the most from therapy.
Also, therapists aren’t some infinite source of wisdom. You can hit a limit with a therapist, which is fine, and then you can move on and find another one. Having multiple therapists is actually ideal, in my opinion.
What's the most challenging situation you've had to overcome?
Realising that I was miserable, and breaking out of that. There was a lot of self judging. I'm grateful for my fiancé as she was the one who primarily supported me through all of it and told me to quit everything two years before I actually did. It took me seven to nine months of thinking about quitting to actually accept the decision to leave everything and live with that decision.
I'm very grateful also for my family and the close friends I had at my firm who were all incredibly supportive of me taking some time to focus on my mental health. I didn’t sense any judgement from them at all about my decision to leave — it’s becoming increasingly common for my generation to leave law for something else, in the US.
How do you deal with self-judging?
Self judging is a constant battle for me. I think it's a form of anxiety in that it comes from that inner critic in your head that just constantly berates you. Despite all that I’ve accomplished in the past eight weeks, it doesn't care, it's always going to be judging me, but what's important is where my energy is focused. It's a constant daily battle for me to redirect my attention away from self-judging.
I tell people that I’ve created a narrative about my own best friend who comes to battle the inner critic anytime the inner critic is talking. It may sound a little crazy, but it works for me. The best friend is really a neural pathway in my brain. So it’s really all about re-establishing that neural pathway as a positive route. And I think that it can work for everybody.
What are your thoughts on students who don't know what they want to do and so go down the 'expected routes' of consultancy, banking or law?
I'd say there's nothing wrong with going down the expected path. I say this about law all the time. I’m often asked whether I regret going to law school, and the response I have is that it's a great launching pad and a great safety net. I can go back into law whenever I want, and I have potential opportunities ahead of me in any industry because I have a powerful degree. Accounting, consulting and banking are similar in that regard. So I would say that it's okay to chase those high standards as long as you don't lose sight of the bigger picture: your interests and wants, the things you naturally gravitate towards. Pay attention to those wants throughout your journey. Even if you go into banking, and you work 100 hours a week, you've got to keep developing this other narrative, this other set of interests, too. Don't think it's bad to do both at the same time.
What would be your advice for young people who are trying to meet the expectations they set for themselves while being happy at the same time?
You’ve got to remember to try to be your own best friend about it. If you're judging yourself and you find yourself saying that you want to give up, talk to yourself however you’d hope your best friend would talk to you. If you don’t have a best friend, become the best friend you wish you had. Create the idealistic version of the best friend who can tell you, “look, don't worry about that, and take it one step at a time.”
Do you ever see yourself returning to law?
Honestly, I do not. There's a lot out there in the world, and law just doesn't personally appeal to me as something that I want to spend my time on. It's a me thing, not a law thing. Law is great, but there are so many things that I want to explore, so I don't really see myself returning to being an attorney.
In my opinion, it makes me feel like just part of an equation, part of a process. If the firm decided to go with option A, I was the person who would go and do the paperwork to make it happen. And I don't want to just do the paperwork; I want to be the one saying, “let's do option A”. But I don't really care about climbing the corporate ladder to get to that position. Nor do I care about the money, to be perfectly honest with you. Time is my most important asset right now. There's a lot out there that I've never tried, and I'm curious to see what happens.
Is there a book or podcast that everyone should know about?
Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker, makes the case for this time, our time in history right now, as the best human era yet. He does a great job of weaving in the data to back up his claim that we are better off than we ever have been. It’s a refreshing perspective, because I'm a “doom scroller”, always checking my phone for news about how the world is ending today. That's what the news does. It’s not geared up to make you happy, it’s geared up to get you to click on their links and read their articles. So, I think Steven Pinker has a really refreshing perspective. And it's all rooted in data.
What do you think about the self-help industry?
Self-help is one of those things that’s almost like pop psychology. You’ve got to think of these books in the same way that I said you should think about therapy. These books are not going to give you all the answers. What you need to do is approach them like a detective. You’ve got to look at these books and find, maybe, an interesting perspective to try for a bit, while remembering to be critical of it, too. The key is to find in these books the things that resonate with you. That's gonna take some time, but not every author is perfect. We're living in an evolving, imperfect world. Some of these authors have done great things, but no book is perfect. No one's going to give you an answer to all of your problems.
How can people connect with you?
You're always welcome to connect with me, and the invitation will stay open, no matter how long it takes you to join. I want people to know that I’m always there for them. TikTok is where I'm most active right now. You can find me on there by just searching my name, Julian Sarafian.
It’s the same on LinkedIn, so just follow me and DM me. I also have a discord, the link for which you can find in my bios, and you can just hop in and talk about mental health or law. That community is growing pretty steadily. We have a lot of good folks in there who are just helping each other. We're here for each other, so if you connect with us, we'll support you. We’ve got your back.