At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zach Gottlieb, 15, frequently heard the media talk about teens’ mental health and how tough life is for them. But no one he knew — especially boys — were talking about how they felt. That’s when Zach had an idea: What if he started a conversation for teenagers about mental health?
“I really wanted to create a space where we could all talk about things and I also wanted to model that guys can talk about what they’re feeling,” Gottlieb, a high school sophomore in Los Angeles, told TODAY Parents. “It’s things teenagers want to talk about but they feel like they can’t."
He created Talk with Zach, an online community dedicated to teen mental health and wellbeing. On Instagram and TikTok, he shares video of him addressing everything from grappling with breakups to back-to-school anxiety to toxic masculinity to complaining. And, he encourages boys to discuss their mental health.
“My message is that vulnerability is a strength rather than a weakness,” he said. “We’re told that it’s not OK to talk about our feelings, like if we fall, we should just get up and push through it … Instead what I’m trying to say is talking about what we feel, you’re putting yourself out there, and I feel you’re really strong for doing that.”
While Zach answers some queries himself, he often turns to experts for their insight into issues. His mom, Lori Gottlieb — a psychotherapist and author of "Maybe You Should Talk to Someone," who has appeared on TODAY — connected him to Jonathan B. Singer, an associate professor of social work at Loyola University in Chicago. He joined Zach for a discussion about suicide. He says that "Talk with Zach" normalizes chatting about mental health in a way in which teens can relate.
“It’s really important to have kids be able to talk about mental health because they believe each other and they’re the group of people that are most important to them in terms of these topics,” Singer, the author of "Suicide in Schools," told TODAY Parents. “Kids can talk to each other in a language that they all understand and frame things in a way that works.”
While Singer said there’s little research looking at peer-to-peer interventions with teenagers, programs, such as Sources of Strength, which train teenagers to become advocates, have shown success.
“It increases kids willingness to connect with other peers, to adults, to acceptable mental health services,” he explained. “Overall it reduces all sorts of what we think of as negative mental health services.”
Zach’s strength is modeling emotional wellbeing and turning to adults when needed.
“He is like, ‘I want to know more about this so I’m going to talk to an adult and I’m going to ask questions that I want to ask and now I have this adult I can reach out to,’” Singer said. “He sort of flips the script in a way that I think is cool because it shows that you can be a kid being the one to drive the narrative.”
Zach said his approach resonates with his peers.
“We have more similar experiences and if an expert tries to talk to a teen it is just a little more difficult,” he said. “It’s just more personal.”
Zach says people have been responding positively to his conversations and they also send in questions about issues bugging them. He feels like he’s grown through his experience, too.
“Putting yourself out there feels vulnerable. It also feels good because what I started to notice was so many people are saying, ‘Wow, I’ve never really seen this before’ and ‘It’s so nice to see that another guy is feeling these things,’” he said. “It’s so taboo in our culture for men and boys, in particular, to really talk about their feelings.”