When I finish talking to Gabby Frost, founder of Buddy Project, I feel old. We talk about fangirls and Justin Bieber and an online war she observed between the fangirls of different boy bands, and I think of being 12 and the only way to “interact” with my celebrity crush, Zac Hanson, was to hold a neon poster at his concert. (And make my AOL email address “MMMbop4me2.”) But I’m not talking to Gabby exclusively for enlightenment on Gen Z, but rather because at age 20, she’s very impressively founded a non-profit focused on destigmatizing mental health while preventing suicide and self harm.
In reading about Buddy Project, I wonder if Gabby struggled with her own mental health, or if the project was born from compassion. She tells me that initially, it was the latter—several of her online friends were talking about suicide and she wanted them to know they weren’t alone. Hindsight, however, showed her that perhaps what connected her to these friends in the first place was her own social anxiety.
Gabby Frost, photo credit: Lexi Shannon
“Seventh grade was a weird time for everyone,” Gabby says, and I laugh, because she’s clearly stating the obvious here. “But by the end of the year, it got even worse. I had a tough time making friends and I was always the person in class without a partner. I even had physical symptoms—my stomach would make noise, I’d shake, or get red in the face if I was in uncomfortable social situations. I was always worried people were talking about me, when clearly they weren’t.”
After reading up on some of her thoughts and physical symptoms, Gabby realized her experience wasn’t completely “normal”—though she’s quick to state that’s neither good nor bad, just information that led her to better understand that what she was going through was social anxiety.
Because Gabby felt anxious around her peers at school, she turned to Twitter and Youtube to find like-minded people. It started simply enough—she saw Justin Bieber send a tweet about his movie, decided she wanted him to tweet at her, so created a Twitter account and connected with some of his other fans. You can say, in a roundabout way, that the pop superstar even helped raise awareness of Buddy Project in that, when he finally did tweet at Gabby in 2012, she gained thousands of followers. When she launched Buddy Project in 2013, she already had 40,000 online followers with whom to share the news.
Three thousand people signed up for Buddy Project in the first day. The mission? To connect those struggling with mental health to “buddies,” so they always have someone to talk to about their struggle—or life, or Justin Bieber.
Gabby at the 2017 Out of the Darkness walk for suicide prevention / @gabbyfrost
“I didn’t want to pair people by mental illness,” Gabby says. “I was worried about self diagnosis or perhaps triggering one another.” And really, aren’t we all more interesting than our demons? I, for one, would rather meet a friend who also loves yoga and hiking than who also has generalized anxiety.
As of September 2018, Buddy Project has paired over 225,000 kids, teenagers, and young adults across the globe. But Gabby knows there’s more work to do.
“I think we’ve made progress in that when I was in middle school, no one talked about mental health. Now, my peers have been much more open about their struggles. But we still have work to do with older generations and stigma.”
In addition to pairing people with buddies, Buddy Project also raises money for mental health and recovery centers. This is wonderful, but it’s reactive. Gabby knows it’s not enough—that as a society, we must address mental health more proactively.
“We need to implement mental health education early on. Kids in elementary school should start to understand how their minds and feelings work, and develop empathy. We must make care more accessible.”
But we’re not there yet. Many teenagers and adults are still navigating a stigmatized system and meeting doubt and skepticism when they seek help. From her own experience, Gabby knows that supportive friends can be hard to find but reminds anyone who is struggling with mental health that you don’t deserve to surround yourself with people who don’t support you.
“There are so many people who are here for you.”
The conversation may have made me feel old, but when Gabby gives this advice, so earnestly and empathic, I don’t mind. I’m excited for the change this generation is making.