Lian Zeitz is a young mental health advocate with lived experience working to make sure all people are supported with dignity and love. Lian has worked with therapeutic programs for struggling youth in 15 states in the US to identify pathways for young people to play a greater role in their own care and the development of mental health programs. He has also worked internationally on areas such as suicide prevention, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse in Bhutan, Canada, Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia, and Zambia. He is passionate about young people’s experiences in therapeutic programs, trauma-focused community development, and pathways to successful transitions in life. At citiesRISE, Lian leads international youth activities and works to develop meaningful ways to engage young people in the development, implementation, and evaluation of mental health programs. In this role, Lian has supported the design and scale-up of cross-sector mental health programs and built a network of youth leaders passionate about mental health across the world. Lian earned a B.A. from Quest University Canada, where he focused on public mental health and international development, and a certificate for Leadership in Mental Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
What made you decide to get into the mental health space?
It started with my own experience with mental health problems in childhood and cycling through every for of treatment from therapy to residential treatment, but the healing I experienced but also the major flaws in the system that I fortunately fended through.
How did you start? And when? How do you help people that are close to you?
I started when I was 18 as an activity trying to stop abuse of young people in therapeutic treatment, partly from my own experiences and also from many of the stories I heard about in programs. I then went to stud literature and public mental health in university.
What has been one of the most gratifying moments in your journey of being an advocate for mental health?
Many gratifying moments but I think ultimately now that I have been working on the issue for 7 years or so, having moments of genuine global progress in spite of the immense challenges the community of people living with mental health problems and advocates face.
Do conversations about causes and treatment of mental health differ across cultures? How do you engage in conversation and invite openness?
Yes, they differ vastly. Sometimes this is based on cultural and historical factors, and others it is because of the systems, structures, and dominating bodies of knowledge around what mental health is and how it should be interpreted. In many Asian and African countries spirituality and mental health are interlinked and there doesn’t exist ways to express mental health in most international languages. For instance, there is no word for depression in swahili so when it comes to causes and treatments the conversation naturally takes on a different form. Id also say that this difference is ok and current thinking pushes us to think of place-based, localized ways of communicating and healing that meets communities where they are at.
Is it possible to raise awareness at school? Like without triggering anyone into a disorder accidentally?
Absolutely. Check out these great school based initiatives: https://www.activeminds.org/, http://teenmentalhealth.org, https://www.stevefund.org/.
What would you suggest a young person who is struggling with mental health should do if they worry their family and friends would treat them differently if the found out about their issues?
Always tough, first thing I would suggest is them to start to work through the shame they may already be feeling that is self-imposed, sometimes you need help to do it but often by reading up on mental health and getting in tune with the many millions of people living with problems, from politicians to the worlds pop stars, some of the fear and hopelessness that society makes us feel about living with a mental health problem can go away. Coming in with facts and resources for family always helps.
Where’s the most interesting place you traveled to and why?
Most interesting is probably Bhutan since it only opened its doors to travelers in 2007 and was never colonized.
If you could tell your younger self something, what would it be?
I wish I was more aware of social inequalities, racism, sexism, and oppressions, mental health slurs, that particularly privileged men and boys like myself are not always attuned to. I think I unknowingly perpetuated dynamics in society when young that I now stand against.
Can you give an example of the one of the programs you ran with adolescents that you felt was very successful?
I helped design and launch a Youth Challenge Award in Nairobi to support youth to become the agents of change for mental health. The project involved seed funding youth led mental health ideas that change access to care and reduce stigma in their community. The project was successful and the young innovators proved that when you empower young people you can achieve fast and creative impact. Some of their projects were apps and others were using arts for social change.
What is the one thing the average person who is not directly affected by mental health challenges can do to help remove the stigma in our society?
Sharing stories and normalizing it is the best they can do. We know that people with heavy mental health stigma most quickly have a mindset shift when they hear people with lived experience share what they went through and the struggles and triumphs that come with it. Also, many people living with mental illnesses unfortunately are indoctrinated and preconditioned to feel and act in ways that sometimes are not the most progressive and also fall into some of the harmful negative tracks of old and outdated ways of thinking. Being versed in the most current thinking on mental health is really helpful so that you can have the communities voice behind what you are saying.
What are some ways that younger people can introduce/educate parents and friends if they don’t exactly understand mental illness, but are open to helping and trying to learn?
I think most parents need a combination of real stories of success and evidence from science – so creating a set of oh hey look this really famous successful person living with this and also a set of current stats to go with it. I think young people see mental health different and are less stigmatized because the world we lived in is different. If they put themselves in their parents shoes, when they were kids having a mental illness was not only not ok it meant your rejected from society. The world is different today and young people are best suited to make that point clear.
Have you seen a huge connection between suicide and PTSD? Not military people, just everyday people?
Yes, a direct linkage has been demonstrated in both science and in the experience I have had. More than PTSD, I think so many people in society have deep levels of trauma that when unaddressed can be a key factor in the development of suicidality.
Knowing that you had your own mental health struggles, what was that pivoting point where things changed and you became proactive about everything going on around you?
It was when I realized the stories I told myself about my mental health problems – such as they validated my sense of inadequacy, my inability to be successful, and the assurance of my failure – and then realized those narratives were what were bringing me town – I found my lived experience as an asset and that realization set me off on an early, but successful career so far.
What if therapy isn’t working for your mental health issue? Where do you turn?
Therapy is often one piece to an array of things that are required for true healing, such as healthy relationships, time outside, healthy eating, and feeling fulfilled – Its important to always say alongside therapy what else was I not doing to complement the work in sessions. Also, there many kinds of therapy and they are significantly different. For instance, a CBT therapist vs a DBT therapist will take you through a different way of processing problems. Good to know what type of therapy you were receiving, see if there is a different type that fits better for you and try something else. If I am getting a new therapist I always go to three or four and then choose the one I vibe with best.