Through ‘Talk With Zach,’ Teenager Zach Gottfried is Helping Thousands of Peers Gain Emotional Literacy
Zach Gottlieb, a local teenager, loved spending time with his grandfather, Selvyn. They played basketball and attended Lakers games together, and relished the sun-kissed playfulness of Southern California during many trips along the coast, enjoying everything the beach had to offer. For Zach, who was raised by a single mother, Selvyn was the closest he’d ever known to a father.
In March 2020, on the first day of remote learning forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, Zach’s mother interrupted his virtual history class to tell him that his beloved grandfather, who had been sick, was deteriorating. Zach immediately logged off Zoom to be by Selvyn’s side, where he held his hand and talked to him. That evening, Zach lost his grandfather to heart failure.
For the then-fourteen-year-old, the sadness was overwhelming. But there was something else. Concerned whether COVID-19 would wreak havoc on children’s mental health, adults around the world were asking teens to open up about their emotions, sadness and anxiety. Parents were advised to speak with their teens; teens were told to open up to their parents.But for Zach, in the wake of his grandather’s death, there seemed to be little room for emotional openness.
In truth, Zach wasn’t okay. The pain of losing his grandfather was as ubiquitous as it was palpable. To make matters worse, Zach, a sociable teen, couldn’t see any of his friends due to the pandemic. When he would tell adults that he missed his grandfather, the response was almost always the same: We know, but you have to be strong.
Instead of being a comfort, the call to strength only made Zach feel like a failure, leaving him to ask if something was wrong with him if he was struggling to be strong.
It seemed that in response to every challenge he faced that year, whether beginning high school on Zoom, being isolated from friends, or losing his grandfather, Zach was urged to be strong. But instead of being a comfort, the call to strength only made Zach feel like a failure, leaving him to ask if something was wrong with him if he was struggling to be strong.
“I’ve been getting those messages to be strong and to just get through it my whole life,” Zach, who now is 16 and a high school sophomore, told the Journal. “And those messages proved the point that mental health is a thing that men in our culture shouldn’t really talk about. It was a big wake-up call.” Zach knew he wanted to talk about a lot of issues, but he felt “a little ashamed.” Still, he said, “I knew that not doing it would be worse for me. I have the right to feel what I feel, and I was able to work past it.”
Zach took a closer look at the environments he knew best, including the basketball court (he’s an avid player), and realized that boys were not only expected, but also told blatantly to “brush off” everything from injuries to fear and sadness. He began to wonder if boys (and teens in general) could be seen as brave, rather than weak, for talking about their struggles. “As interest in mental health grew during the pandemic,” he said, “the media encouraged teens to talk about it, but I didn’t feel we had that space. I want our generation to be emotionally literate.”
A year later, in summer 2021, he took out his phone, logged onto Instagram, and created an account called “Talk with Zach.” With that account, Zach hoped he could reach out to fellow teens and let them know it was okay to talk about their pains and to ask questions. He wasn’t sure how Talk with Zach would be received. And then, the feedback poured in.
Talk with Zach (TWZ) became more than a Gen-Z community; it became a movement, as teens from around the world began sending Zach anonymous questions (via Google forms) and posts. Less than a year after it was created, TWZ has engaged over 100,000 teens in 12 countries and 41 cities.
Talk with Zach (TWZ) became more than a Gen-Z community; it became a movement, as teens from around the world began sending Zach anonymous questions (via Google forms) and posts. Less than a year after it was created, TWZ has engaged over 100,000 teens in 12 countries and 41 cities. TWZ has received questions and posts from five continents (with the exception of Africa and Antarctica), and from countries including China, France, India, Argentina, Spain, the United Kingdom and Canada, as well as countries in the Middle East. In many cases, Zach and his team have had to use Google Translate to understand and respond to teens’ questions. And teen engagement, according to Zach, has been split relatively evenly between males and females.
TWZ’s motto is simple, but sage: “We can’t change what we don’t talk about.”
The TWZ approach is simple: Zach takes to Instagram (and TikTok) and creates videos in which he responds to teen questions or engages in conversation with an expert. In one video, Zach spoke with Jonathan B. Singer, Associate Professor of social work at Loyola University in Chicago, about suicide. Teens join TWZ Instagram live videos (some share experiences while others ask for advice). The topics are vital for most teens and include addiction, anxiety, the impact of COVID-19 and academic stress. Zach has posted videos on how to help a friend who is depressed and how to prevent overthinking. On the TWZ website, he explicitly states, “Ask me anything … really.” TWZ’s motto is simple, but sage: “We can’t change what we don’t talk about.”
On Instagram, Zach responds with a combination of carefully-researched information as well as his own thoughts. The website also features blogs by fellow teens, with topics such as “Are Grades for Me or My Dad?” written by a ninth-grader in Dallas and “Instagram vs. My Body,” by an eleventh- grader in Portland. On the website, Zach is clear about his own limitations: “Remember that I’m just a teen who thinks we should talk more, not an expert, and you should always go to a qualified adult if you have concerns about something in your life,” he writes.
Some of the topics that teens have pitched to Zach, also known as “Things you asked to deal with,” inspired videos titled “How to Deal with Rejection” and “Mental Health and Instagram.” One of the most meaningful videos for Zach was devoted to talking about toxic masculinity, which he attributed to pushing him to “be strong” after his grandfather’s death.
“What if there was strength in vulnerability? What if there was bravery in the kind of honesty we don’t really post on social media?”
On the TWZ website, Zach admits that after losing Selvyn, he “began to wonder if we needed to examine our definition of ‘strong.’ Not just for boys, but for all of us. What if there was strength in vulnerability? What if there was bravery in the kind of honesty we don’t really post on social media?”
In September 2021, he penned an online essay for Time Magazine titled “It’s Time for Boys to Talk about Emotional Health.” In it, he asked, “What if our generation took the lead in expanding our understanding of emotional health as something not reserved for some genders, but as something essential for every single one of us?”
Once, another teen asked Zach about the length of grief. He took to his phone to respond that grief doesn’t always end and that a person can grieve but still move forward. “I have no idea if my post helped that person,” he wrote in Time, “but I know this: Just saying it out loud helped me. And that’s the whole point. I definitely don’t have all the answers, but at least I’m comfortable talking about it.”
Ambassadors for Change
“TWZ is more influential than a big corporation because it’s teens talking to other teens,” said Natalia Fishkin, 16. “If they see someone they can relate to, it’s easier to listen to what they have to say.” Fishkin, a sophomore in Los Angeles, is one of over 25 teen “ambassadors” volunteering with TWZ. As part of her duties, Fishkin often makes videos for TWZ on Instagram. “I have loved sharing ways to improve your mental well-being,” she said. “Through comments on posts or by coming up to me in person, teens have said they’ve benefited from TWZ by getting helpful coping mechanisms and starting the conversation of the importance of balanced mental health.”
The greatest value of TWZ is in its teen-to-teen model. “For many teens, hearing from other people like them can be one of the most powerful ways to learn how to deal with different issues,” said Owen Grossman, an LA-based teen ambassador on the TWZ editorial team, which pitches and researches content, writes and edits blogs posts and conducts interviews. For Grossman, helping teens talk about mental health is deeply personal. “Working with TWZ gives me the platform to advocate for issues that I really care about (specifically LGBTQ+ rights and its intersection with mental health),” he said. “I wanted the real-world experience and opportunity to make real change. Zach is really on top of everything and I admire how he created and grew TWZ — I wanted to work with him.”
TWZ teen ambassadors conduct weekly meetings on Zoom (topics include planning, adding new content and research). Along with other team members, Zach checks emails from teens worldwide who ask questions and seek advice. The TWZ website includes a large button that actively encourages teens to “Become an Ambassador.”
Talk with Zach is one of several viral platforms that offers crucial peer-to-peer conversations (as opposed to teens speaking with adults). Another is the vital Teen Talk App, launched by the Los Angeles Jewish Teen Initiative, also known as LAJTI (a project of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, in partnership with Jewish Big Brothers and Big Sisters Los Angeles). The LAJTI trains volunteer Teen Advisors how to respond to mental health-related posts from teens ages 13-19. It’s a free, safe and anonymous way for teens to request support from their own peers (and users can post 24 hours a day, seven days a week). Licensed mental health professionals supervise the trained Teen Advisors during app hours, from 5-10 p.m. PT nightly. Topics range from a first panic attack to painful breakups and suicidal ideation.
At UCLA, the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior launched the UCLA Peers Clinic that allows adolescents to connect on many topics ranging from dating to careers. There are telehealth options that connect peers to young adults, adolescents and even preschoolers. The program even offers Bullyproofing Boot Camps. The Peers program offers social skills intervention while also teaching youth how to respond to conflict and rejection. Parental participation is required, as parents must attend separate sessions simultaneously. The program is dedicated to helping adolescents make and keep friends.
And then, there’s Sources of Strength, which is dedicated to preventing only one thing: suicide. It is one of the first suicide prevention programs that uses Peer Leaders to create what it calls “protective factors” to reduce and prevent youth suicide. Like Talk With Zach, Sources of Strengths uses the power of peer social networks. According to its website, Sources of Strength “moves beyond a singular focus on risk factors by utilizing an upstream approach for youth suicide prevention. This upstream model strengthens multiple sources of support (protective factors) around young individuals so that when times get hard they have strengths to rely on.”
The peer-to-peer model is especially important. By modeling vulnerability and openness himself, Zach has given thousands of teens permission to talk, question and respond. And TWZ meets teens where they are already: on social media.
According to The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a whopping 90 percent of teens ages 13-17 have used social media. A 2018 Pew survey found that 95 percent of teens had access to a smartphone; 45 percent said they were online “almost constantly.” While benefits of social media use include staying connected with peers as well as having a platform on which to express themselves, there are also dangerous risks to youth activity on social media, including cyberbullying, interference with daily functions and exposure to harmful content (and harmful people).
And in a social media world that explicitly leaves teens feeling inadequate (think models posting fabulous photos or even a group of teens posting photos of themselves at parties, to the exclusion of others), social media is generally not a space for teens to feel good about themselves.
On social media, teens are reminded that if they do not overachieve in every area, whether academic pursuits, physical appearance or social skills, they’re failures.
On social media, teens are reminded that if they do not overachieve in every area, whether academic pursuits, physical appearance or social skills, they’re failures. To make matters worse, teens are expressing unprecedented levels of loneliness and disconnection, due to a combination of lack of time, COVID hibernation and the fact that texting and social media have replaced in-person social interactions that are crucial for development.
That’s where TWZ offers an antidote to the damage of isolation, shaming and other risks of social media: by offering teens a space to feel less alone and stigmatized, and part of a caring community. As more and more adults have taken notice of teens’ mental health, various organizations and corporations have invited Zach to speak at conferences and as part of panels to offer a window into the important world of Gen-Z.
The Teen and the Survivor
In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Los Angeles-based Henry Slucki, a then-85-year-old Holocaust survivor who was born in France, received a call from a teenager, asking him if he wanted to talk. The call came from Zach, who is a volunteer for The Righteous Conversations Project, a collaboration between Holocaust survivors and teens that was launched in 2011 by Remember Us (the Holocaust Bnai Mitzvah Project). “Henry told me that he was an optimist, not in a naive way, but in the sense that he believed we are more resilient than we often know,” said Zach. It was Slucki who introduced him to Viktor Frankl’s groundbreaking book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” and to the idea that we have ultimate control over our thoughts and attitudes.
“Before my conversations with Henry, I had seen the atrocities of the Holocaust as a tragic historical event, but now I saw how relevant Henry’s experience was to the world my generation was living in too,” said Zach.
Zach and Henry have spoken on a digital panel together about antisemitism, and Zach previously moderated a Holocaust-related event for The Righteous Conversations Project. He also became president of the teen board for Remember Us, which invites children preparing for their bar/bat mitzvah to connect, whether through a mitzvah b’shem (mitzvah in the name of someone) or a speech at the bimah, with the memory of a child lost during the Holocaust. As teen board president, Zach helps plan events to raise awareness about the Holocaust and to combat hate and prejudice.
“He [Zach] wanted to know my story and had a lot of questions,” said Slucki, who holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and who, for 56 years, taught at the USC School of Medicine, teaching behavioral science to medical students and health professionals. “For 56 years at USC, I considered myself an educator,” he said. “There’s something in it for me when I explain things to people who don’t know or understand.”
Zach’s questions, according to Slucki, directed most of their conversations. “It’s important when people hear biographical things and ask, ‘How did you feel about that? What happened next?’ From the experience of a Holocaust survivor, we might have a different answer than others,” said Slucki. A year into their weekly conversations, Zach learned that Slucki’s wife was ill. “It was during these conversations that I felt I could be helpful to Henry, not because there was anything I could do to change his situation, but because I could just be there for him, consistently, each week,” said Zach. “From my experience with Henry, I learned about the importance of being present and how healing human connection can be — even between people who started out as strangers, seven decades apart in age.”
The two have talked about hope and grief, family, friends and politics. They have shared opinions on books, movies and hobbies, and even discussed career paths. “In many ways, I was reminded of the conversations I used to have with my grandfather,” said Zach, “and while my job was to comfort Henry, often it felt like he was the one comforting me.”
Slucki has also delighted in the opportunity. “We talk about Zach’s life,” he said. “The most bizarre thing about this whole situation is that we’ve been talking for two years, we live about a mile-and-a-half from each other, and we’ve never met in person [due to COVID-19 precautions].”
Zach believes that Slucki has modeled for him how to be an “optimist-activist.” For his part, Slucki is confident that he will continue to serve as a speaker and participate in The Righteous Conversations Project for years. “My parents, Rachel and Saul, were always upbeat and optimistic, even under the most stressful situations,” he said. “My mother lived to 100; my dad to 97; I’m not going anywhere soon.”
“In 2017, Eva Suissa (daughter of Journal editor-in-chief), a Shalhevet senior and Remember Us Teen Board President, envisioned an initiative she named Holding Hands, which had an extraordinary ripple until now and to Zach even though they never crossed paths,” said Samara Hutman, Director of Remember Us. Holding Hands paired teens and survivors in monthly gatherings to build “joyful and generative relationships,” according to Hutman. In 20I9, Suissa passed the torch to another teen, Tess Levy, and the following year, to Charlie Nevins. Even during the height of the pandemic, teens helped enrich the lives of local survivors by sending a loud message: You are not forgotten. Nevins created a film festival that featured over 30 Righteous Conversation Project films for the community.
Zach and Slucki’s connection has been a source of nachat (pride) for Remember Us leaders.
“When we put out the call for teen volunteer to be paired with an elder for a weekly check in, the very first email I got was from Zach,” said Hutman. “Every week, like clockwork, I got a call from Zach. He said ‘just checking in,’ but I heard one of the most poignant and powerful Jewish proclamations; I heard Hineni [‘Here I Am’].”
“And now just look at where this inspiration has taken him. Hineni. He is here.” – Samara Hutman
Hutman knew to pair Zach with Henry, who has participated in the Righteous Conversations Project for nearly 13 years. “I knew they would find a deep connection because of how they both walked through the world,” she said. “And the rest is history. Zach showed up. Virtually, safely, with care and with heart. And he connected with Henry and opened himself up to being inspired, taught and moved by Henry’s wisdom and life experience. And now just look at where this inspiration has taken him. Hineni. He is here.”
Creating a New Culture for Teens
“What Zach is doing is helping children heal, and to realize that what they’re experiencing is normal and nothing to be ashamed about,” said Dr. Adam Dorsay, a San Jose-based psychologist who was recently featured in a TWZ Instagram video. “Zach has recognized at a very young age that a precursor for courage is actually vulnerability — with others, but also with ourselves. And he’s providing early intervention so someone doesn’t come into my office in three decades and has been holding everything in.”
Dorsay previously worked with teenagers and observed that in the adults he treats today, “the inner teen is still alive and hurting; certain parts have calcified.” When he speaks with parents of teens, the concerns often point to one area: technology.
“I can only attribute greater anxiety and depression than before in teens to technology — cyberbullying and a 24-hour news cycle that only says ‘things are bad.’ That’s the soundtrack of these children’s lives. It’s like constantly having to ask flight attendants, ‘Are we safe?’” said Dorsay.
Some “misled” adults, according to Dorsay, complain that children are exhibiting more weakness today than in the past. “Actually, it’s not that,” he said, “but all children are hearing is that the world is being turned upside down. How much time are they spending in nature and doing other normal, natural things? Instead, they’re glued to their devices, hearing about other kids presenting the best parts of their world.” The results of this shift, said Dorsay, are rising to the surface in the form of drug abuse, eating disorders and mutilation and self-harm.
“Our brains haven’t changed in 35,000 years or more, but our surroundings have changed dramatically in the last 20 years,” observed Dorsay. “In the last 15 years, there have been over a dozen upgrades to an iPhone; in the last 35,000 years, our brains have been unchanged.”
The Social Entrepreneur
“I’ve been working with some nonprofits and realized that certain kinds of companies have a lot of influence on teens and help shape what they value,” said Zach. He discovered MadHappy, an online clothing retailer that launched in 2017 and has mental health embedded in its brand. In 2022, the company launched The Madhappy Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to moving mental health forward. The brand is popular with teens, prompting Zach to collaborate with them on promotions at their former pop-up store on Melrose Boulevard in L.A. and to appear in some of their social media promotions. Zach will participate in a Question-and-Answer session this upcoming fall with MadHappy founders at the opening party of the permanent L.A. store. The event will be for teens only. “We’ll talk about our mutual goal of opening up conversations around mental health for Gen Z,” said Zach, anticipating a sold-out event.
Zach is undaunted about reaching out to some of the biggest and well-known corporations in the world in order to magnify TWZ and teen mental health as a truly global movement. Recently, he reached out to an executive at Nike. After speaking together on Zoom, she invited Zach to Nike’s L.A. headquarters this June to speak with a marketing team about how to reach Gen Z in a way that de-stigmatizes mental health awareness.
TWZ is helping to open an entirely new conversation about teens’ own agency and choices when it comes to mental health, and American leaders have taken notice. Zach has been invited to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Youth Mental Health Summit, which will be held in person this fall. “One thing the Surgeon General’s team and I believe is important is connection,” he said. “Many teens feel disconnected in the ways that matter, and I know that connection will be a big theme in our work together.”
Last December, in a rare move, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy declared a “youth mental health crisis” in America. “Recent national surveys of young people have shown alarming increases in the prevalence of certain mental health challenges — in 2019, one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, an overall increase of 40% from 2009,” Murthy wrote in the advisory. Among ages 10 to 24 years old, suicide rates have increased by 57% between 2007 and 2018. In 2020, it was estimated there were more than 6,600 suicides in the same age group.
Clearly, more teens need to be included in adult conversations about youth mental health. Next month, Zach will speak in person at the Aspen Ideas Festival, hosted by the Aspen Institute. He will discuss the potential of technology to help teens connect (using the TWZ teen community on Instagram as a powerful example).
The media has taken notice as well. TWZ has been featured in TODAY, Katie Couric Media, The Huffington Post and Challenge Success. TWZ now boasts a merchandising (“merch”) line on its website, and a portion of earnings will go to mental health charities that help under-resourced communities access better mental health practices. “I have my own merch so that teens can feel proud and spread the message, which I think also reduces stigma when other teens are wearing it,” said Zach. The apparel includes the TWZ motto: “We can’t change what we don’t talk about.”
The Imperative of Creating Healthy Habits
Zach credits Judaism as a major influence on his activism and compassionate leadership. He serves as co-president of a BBYO (a Jewish teen movement) chapter for the Pacific West region for IKAR, a Jewish congregation and spiritual community founded by Rabbi Sharon Brous. He helps plan bi-weekly meetings, brainstorms event ideas that connect other BBYO chapters in the region, and also handles organizations responsibilities for the chapter.
“The idea of tikkun olam (repairing the world) has really influenced my work because I’m attempting to change the culture and make the world a better place in which we can talk about these issues,” said Zach. “Also, the aspect of community in Judaism is central and has taught me a lot.”
“Being Jewish is an important part of my identity, because it dictates my life in terms of community and who I am.”
His favorite Jewish holidays are Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah. “That’s when I reflect,” he said. Each Shabbat, Zach and his mother say prayers over wine and bread, and Zach receives a blessing for children. “Being Jewish is an important part of my identity, because it dictates my life in terms of community and who I am,” he said.
Between the demands of school (he just concluded AP exams), TWZ and extracurricular commitments, Zach, like any other teen, admits to sometimes feeling overloaded. “I used to play basketball, work out, do photography, filmmaking and hang out with my friends more,” he admitted. “Now, the main thing is just planning up my time. It’s difficult, I’m up really late at night, but it’s important to have a schedule, and to try not to procrastinate.” His favorite school subjects include Science, History, Math, English and Humanities. When asked about future plans for TWZ, his namesake, once he ceases to be a teenager, Zach was optimistic and, as always, action-oriented. “I’m going to pass it on to another teen, and it’ll keep getting passed down,” he said. “We can keep the name and I’ll oversee it from afar.”
Ultimately, Zach and teens like him around the world are a testament to Aristotle’s ancient observation that “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”
In contemplating how he applies his own mental health advice to himself, Zach understands the value of moderation. “I’m a regular teen,” he said, “and there needs to be a balance between talking about emotions and finding other outlets, like hanging out with friends, listening to music and working out. But some things are a short-term approach, because you definitely need to address your feelings. When I’m having a bad day, I’ll cool off a little, then reflect when I’m in a better headspace.”
Learn more about @talkwithzach on Instagram.
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