Let’s go back to the very beginning of COVID-19, to March of 2020. Schools had just shut down, people were hoarding toilet paper and canned goods, and the world was in total chaos.
As pandemic started to get worse, we realized that the quarantine would go on indefinitely. My memories from this time consist of constant headlines about masks, hospitalizations, and deaths.
But there was one more news item that we couldn’t escape: the toll this would all take on our mental health.
Of particular concern was the effect this global pandemic would have on young people my age. We were missing all the rituals built into our lives: graduations, proms, sports, performances, and most importantly, all the daily social interaction that suddenly disappeared. We were scared, confused, sad, and angry. And the adults around us wanted to make sure that we could talk about what we were experiencing.
But that wasn’t so easy, especially for boys. For many boys, who grew up with the notion that “strength” meant keeping your feelings inside, talking about them seemed weak. Thinking about this inspired me to post a video to see if others had noticed the same thing, and people really responded to it. I was surprised, but at the same time not; for many, it was a relief that a guy was talking about emotional health.
But I knew that real change could only happen if we started talking more and showing that strength isn’t holding your feelings in, but having the courage to share them. So I decided to take action. I created a platform called Talk With Zach on Instagram and Tiktok, a community where other teens feel comfortable having conversations about topics ranging from depression and anxiety to systemic racism and gender.
Nothing is off-limits, which means I also had to put myself out there and go outside of my comfort zone. I asked other teens to submit questions anonymously and I created videos with answers. I also do interviews with other teens about issues we’re facing like breakups and academic pressure, and with experts on everything from addiction to bullying and suicide prevention.
At first I didn’t know how people would react, but my friends were all super enthusiastic about it. Soon teens from all over the world were joining the conversation and saying how much my community was helping them. They said it made them feel less alone and that hearing from other teens who shared their experiences was a huge relief.
The pandemic started to change the way we think about mental health, but that was just a beginning. My generation has the ability to make mental health a priority and to take away the longstanding stigma that is so often still associated with emotional vulnerability. I hope that my community is helping teens to begin to talk more, and to bring a sense of openness into their own lives.
So here’s my advice. Pick someone to talk to about your emotional health or just anything you’re feeling. See how it feels. And try to talk with one person every day because then it will start to feel more normal. I believe that if we all do this, over time we’ll start to see a major cultural change in how we view emotional wellness. And not only will it benefit us now, but it will create a better world for generations to come.
Zach Gottlieb is a 15-year-old mental health activist and the creator of @TalkWithZach on Instagram and Tiktok.