This 20-year-old CEO has created a website aimed at preventing suicide and self-harm by pairing people online who can support each other.
In 2013, Gabby Frost founded Buddy Project, a nonprofit peer support system to counteract some of the negativity and bullying often found on social media. The program is geared toward children and young adults and provides positivity, companionship, resources and education for those who are struggling with mental illness or are in need of a support system.
Mental illness affects tens of millions of people in the United States each year, yet only half receive treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Buddy System’s website says the service is not a substitute for therapy or other types of mental health care, and it directs people to resources for further help.
Since founding the organization as a high school student, Frost has helped more than 200,000 participants find a new friend. On the day Buddy Project launched, she used her robust social media presence to attract nearly 3,000 participants. “This was around the time when teens really began talking about mental health and found a supportive community online to talk about it,” she said.
Now a student at Drexel University in Philadelphia, she is still balancing homework with her work on Buddy Project.
In an interview with HuffPost, Frost shared her inspiration for the project, explained how it has evolved over the years and revealed her hopes for changing the conversation surrounding mental illness.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come up with the idea for Buddy Project? What made you think of pairing up people online?
I created Buddy Project when I was 15. At the time, my best friend had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, and that was the first time I was made aware of what mental illness was. I wanted to learn more and be a good support system for her.
Back then, I was also on Twitter because I had trouble making friends in school. I found a lot of people I related to online, and I found a community of friends based on my interests. I combined those two experiences and wanted to make a way for people to find a safe and loving community online. I wanted people to have a peer support system available to them and to feel accepted.
How do you match up the buddies, and are there any guidelines or restrictions that you follow?
Buddies are paired based on one of five interests that they choose on a sign-up form. I take their age into account and try to keep it so that there’s not more than a three-to-four-year age difference between buddies. Our main demographic is those ages 13 to 21. In the past couple of years, our 21-plus demographic has grown quite a bit.
Buddies can communicate through Twitter or Instagram. Some buddies have then exchanged numbers, met in person or used video chat. It’s really up to the discretion of the buddies as to how far they want to take their friendship. We don’t really tell people how often they have to talk to their buddies. It’s really whatever their own comfort zone is.
A lot of our pairings have been very successful, and some buddies have met in person, gone to events together or spent a few days together.
When you started Buddy Project, did you ever anticipate that it would become what it is now?
When I launched Buddy Project, I was in the ninth grade and only had free time after school. I intended it to be something I did on the side. I didn’t really think that many people would be interested in it. On the first day, 3,000 people signed up. I realized then that this was not something I was just going to do on the side.
How has Buddy Project changed since you started? Are you still focused solely on making these online connections?
Buddy Project started out by just raising awareness for mental health on social media. Then we became a nonprofit, and since 2015 we’ve been trying to fundraise to help pay for others’ mental health treatments too. We’ve mainly focused on raising money for residents in our hometown of southeastern Pennsylvania, but we want to expand and offer help throughout the United States.
Mental health care is not always accessible or affordable, and that needs to be talked about. Even if the stigma surrounding mental illness becomes decreased, the cost of treatment is still a problem. Without help, there are some people who won’t be able to receive the proper care.
You started Buddy Project when you were still relatively young. Have you learned anything along the way or experienced any unexpected hardships?
One of the biggest social barriers I had to jump over was that people didn’t view me seriously because I was a 15-year-old girl, and even now, I’m still a young woman. Sometimes it’s frustrating because people don’t think what I do is needed or that I’m not professional because of my age. Most people are blown away that a 20-year-old girl is running this and are pleasantly surprised that it’s one person doing this and not a whole team. I’m just lucky that I’ve found a support system that has been able to help my mom and me with the project.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.