How Two Students Are Helping Young People Suffering With Mental Illness
"She was having trouble in school," says Frost, now an apple-cheeked 18-year-old. "Then she had to change schools, and friends fell out of her life. I tried to be there for her. One day she said, 'I appreciate your friendship.'"
Frost suspects that if this girl had been forced to face her challenges alone, things might have ended differently. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about 20 percent of kids ages 13 to 18 live with depression, anxiety, or other serious mood or conduct disorders. Many engage in self-destructive behaviors such as cutting. Some contemplate suicide.
That same year, on Twitter, Frost also talked down other teens she didn't know who said they were suicidal and had no supportive family or friends. So she started wondering: What if she could find a way to pair up kids who were struggling and felt isolated? Could that help?
Today her website, Buddy Project (buddy-project.org), has connected more than 140,000 young people who need someone to talk to. Launched in April 2013, the site asks users to indicate their interests from a pool of options: things like comic books, feminism, photography, Demi Lovato. (Many of the choices are music related—"that's what teenagers talk about," Frost says.) Frost pairs buddies by interest and age; they check in, chat, and offer support via text, tweet, and email. The feedback she receives is staggering.
"It's the tweets where people say that without this they would be hurting themselves, that they wouldn't be alive, that always stun me," Frost says.
Sonia Doshi, 22, also watched peers struggle. At the competitive Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, she saw friends collapse under the intense pressure to succeed. "There were students at the top of the class who'd withdraw from friends or start missing school," she says. "They were showing signs of depression. I just didn't know then what the signs were."
Doshi learned them once she arrived at the University of Michigan. There, the bright-eyed brunette helped create an online forum for students to support one another and worked on surveys to help colleges assess their mental health climate. She also founded the Tinyshifts National Film Competition, in which college students were asked to create two-minute videos about how they deal with stress and offer ways to cope. In 2015, Doshi organized a show akin to The Vagina Monologues, in which students told stories of living with mental illness, some revealing their struggle for the first time.
Doshi—like Frost—believes the best support young people can receive is from friends. "We turn to them first," she says. "It takes strength to broach the subject of mental health, and if the person we confide in doesn't know how to help, an opportunity is wasted. That's what we have to prevent."