Eli Paulk sat alone outside of Purdue University Fort Wayne’s International Ballroom. A handful of students filtered in and out of the banner event September’s Suicide Prevention Week: a resource fair with over a dozen different community organizations and groups hoping to engage students on the topic of mental health. Dressed in black shorts and a purple Louisiana State University hoodie, Paulk appeared to be unaware or uninterested in the event going on in front of him. A surprising observation to me because, as he would later share, although he has made it his goal to help others struggling with depression, Eli still battles with it himself.
“There was honestly, two years straight where every day, it just seemed like there was a cloud over me,” Paulk said, fighting back tears. “I couldn’t enjoy anything.”
Paulk did not share exactly what circumstances affected his life during these two years other than a short-lived break up with his girlfriend. But he said he credits her, as well the music of J-Cole and Mac Miller for helping him work through that time in his life. This is why he says Miller’s death last September affected him so deeply.
Paulk said although he didn’t meet him, talk to him, or even consider him his favorite rapper, Miller and his music were a big part of his life growing up. When Miller’s album, “Swimming,” released last September, he said he listened to the song “Wings” on repeat while crying for a half an hour.
“He was very transparent,” Paulk said, as he teared up. “Everybody knew his struggles. He didn’t hide from anything. And that’s why people connected so easy.”
And by sharing his own personal challenges on YouTube, Eli is trying to do the same.
Last July, Paulk announced a change in the direction of the content on his YouTube channel, “Eli Is Broke.” Once a mix of personal adventures, hip hop and rap album reviews, and a short film about self doubt, Paulk started to post videos focused on success and happiness. One of his longest uploads, a conversation about depression in millennials, runs 17-minutes long.
Paulk said he wanted to stop making clickbait and focus on producing more substantive content that could make a difference in people’s lives.
“I don’t wanna try to fix anybody,” Paulk said. “But I wanna be there in case anybody needs affirmation.”
Paulk said he has always had the urge to help people. Born and raised in Fort Wayne, one of his clearest memories as a kid was not being able to understand why there are homeless people in the city. He took notice of the juxtaposition of homeless people asking for money along Coliseum Boulevard, while high-end car dealerships existed nearby. This led him to pursue a career in social services, before becoming an English major and focusing on communication after encouragement from his professor, Dr. Kate White.
However, his mission of reaching out to and helping others is proving harder than he thought.
During the first week of the fall semester, Paulk passed out over 1,500 business cards on campus to promote his channel. Since then, he has not seen any increase in views or heard from a single person who may have found his card — until I contacted him.
Paulk took a four-month break from making videos to focus on himself.
Josué Loya, Paulk’s longtime neighbor and friend, said this is something Paulk doesn’t often do. Loya says Paulk is always doing what he can to help others.
“He’s a very caring person,” Loya said. Anytime he has needed a ride, run out of gas, or just needed help cleaning his yard, Paulk has always been there to help.
Paulk’s desire to reach out to those struggling with their own mental health is not without need.
Judy Tillapaugh, Coordinator of Fitness and Wellness at Purdue Fort Wayne, said suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college students. Tillapaugh said one of the best things students could do for their own mental health is to reach out to others.
“You’re talking, you’re sharing, you’re laughing, you’re connecting,” Tillapaugh said. “That can make a difference in helping a person cope through something that they might be facing.”
At a time when it is easier for us to be closed off and pulled into our own little words through smartphones and social media, Paulk said he hopes his content can break through and make it easier for those of his own generation to connect and reach out to others. He aims to meet people where they are, rather than wait for them to come forward.
Paulk hopes to find the right balance between positivity and entertainment. He knows kids won’t want to watch videos of him solely lecturing about mental health. He wants it to be easier for audiences to digest, so he can make a meaningful connections and accomplish what he set out to do in the beginning.
“That’s the goal,” Paulk said. “Give people hope.”