As part of our support community on Slack, we regularly invite mental health leaders to do open and honest Q&A sessions with our members. We discuss topics surrounding mental illness coping and recovery, advocacy, reducing stigma, and more.
Zak is CEO and co-founder of the mental health support company PYM Health. Zak is also an angel investor in consumer technology and consumer packaged goods companies including Brandless, Florence Health, Beboe, Défoncé, House of Waris, Yumi, Relief Technologies, and Indais. Formerly, Zak was COO of the recommendation platform Crossing Minds, the Director of Business Development for media company Condé Nast, and the marketing lead for gaming and media platform N3TWORK.
Zak is a board member of mental health awareness non-profit Bring Change 2 Mind and the Yerba Buena Center of the Arts where he focuses on guiding the organizations’ strategy and business development initiatives. He received an MBA from Columbia Business School and BA from New York University with a double major in Linguistics and Literature.
Thank you so much for your time today, Zak. We really appreciate it. For men, it can often be difficult to get the help we need in general, but especially when it comes to mental health. I believe that is changing for the better in that the stigma from mental health is decreasing overall. However, we still have a long way to go. Whether it’s from societal pressures or internal struggles, men seem to be more hesitant to go to therapy. What would you say to encourage someone who is on the fence about going to counseling, especially if they are really struggling but feel like they just need to grin and bear it?
Zak: See if you can do a trial period. Most counselors would be open to it. If it’s not good a fit move on.
How would you ask for time off at work to go to therapy appointments?
Zak: Review your company policy, if you are at a larger co they generally have a wellness program or specific language relating to it. If you have a good rapport with your manager speak with him or her directly. Otherwise, talk to HR.
Hi Zak thanks so much. So sorry for the loss of your father to mental illness. It’s very strong of you to be an advocate for others struggling after such a loss. I would love to know why you decided to be this voice? And how do you continue to honor your dad’s memory today?
Zak: Well I decided to become an advocate because I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression personally. Found myself self-medicating and generally unhappy so when it came to speaking about my and my family struggles personally it just sort of clicked. In terms of honoring him personally I have an eleven week old son so at this point it mainly involves being a present father.
Also for those coping with the loss of loved ones, how do you make sense of passing to mental illness over time? And how do you think we can work in our families to recognize illness, and hopefully prevent such loses moving forward? Signs, etc to look for in our loved ones
Zak: Oof that’s a tough one. I would say understanding what issues family members are dealing with in the first place is a start. Following that getting them to open up and gauging their willingness to engage or get help is the second. Finding a way to feel sustained and supported through what can be a very draining and time-intensive process is a third part. It’s hard I feel for you.
How did you feel in the first steps of becoming an advocate for mental health?
Zak: Well I was very traumatized after my Dad’s death and found that teaching financial literacy in prison helped me heal and cope with the trauma. After that I found that being vulnerable and open about my struggles seemed to actually help others. So I just kind of kept on doing it. I love it as I find it healing personally.
Hi, Zak! Thanks for being here. What would you say to someone who wants to get help with their depression but faces stigma from those closest to them, like their parents?
Zak: If those closest to you are not being supportive it can be helpful to go beyond to find your community. Church groups, mental health support communities like this one, al-anon and ACOA and other organizations like that can be helpful if pertinent. It can be really hard to try to get people who don’t get it to get it so going outside the family is sometimes the best option.
I was wondering how you think we can help people who feel they can’t go on?
Zak: I found great help for me personally at my lowest times in volunteering and doing service work. If you find yourself chronically depressed over a long period of time seeing a psychiatrist is sometimes helpful too.
Thank you! But for people who are too depressed to get out of the house, how can I help them from miles away?
Zak: Support groups and communities that focus on outreach can be helpful. That said chronically depressed people who are not making themselves accessible can be hard to reach. Maybe volunteering for a hotline or being supportive in online communities can be of help.
I wanted to see if you have any advice for a man who is broken hearted and doesn’t feel worthy of being loved and constantly gets taken advantage of.
Zak: Oh man I’ve been there. It can feel so raw for so long. I found for myself that staying busy doing things I love to do like volunteering and helping entrepreneurs has really helped me go through a very challenging breakup I had a couple years ago. Time is healing. Also, animals!
What would you advise for someone who feels like they have no purpose in life and feels like they can’t do anything right?
Zak: I would make a list of things that make you happy and use that as a foundation for working out what you want to spend time doing. That’s really what matters. If you can find a fit doing something professionally that leaves you enriched and your heart full at the end of the day then you will get very good at it.
Hey, Zak. Thanks for being here. So as an entrepreneur myself I find it extremely difficult to function sometimes and be productive towards running my business. This leads to negative self-talk, doubt and low confidence. Besides self-help books any advice on how to shift your mindset towards a more positive one? I have problems with confidence too.
Zak: Entrepreneurship can be really lonely. Find people you can talk to who get the isolation and challenge that comes from it. There are entrepreneurial communities out there filled with people going through what you are going through. Exercise really helps though I don’t do it enough. Carve out time to do something you love every week – cooking, seeing music, going on a hike. Also, find a coach or a mentor if you can.
What would you advise for someone who is constantly in a state of depression and anxiety even on a good day they can’t seem to shake away the pain that constantly haunts them?
Zak: I found that the first fix for me was to learn how to not self-medicate. I was masking the pain with alcohol often and that just made things worse. Eating well and getting outdoors around nature is also really helpful for me. If self-medication isn’t an issue then finding opportunities to connect with people is helpful. Also, exercise!
Hey, Zak. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. How do you differentiate what to share publicly versus what you keep private? I am in a unique position being a clinical psychologist, a person who has suffered from mental health issue for decades and have finally gotten them under control, and the publisher of a local ethnic newspaper. I can have a voice but I am hesitant to publicize my private struggles.
Zak: I deal with this a lot. What I found was helpful is establishing boundaries relating to what I was comfortable and uncomfortable with sharing was important. There are private matters that are no one’s business but your loved ones or your own but it’s really up to you to decide what those are. Being vulnerable is very powerful but it requires you being comfortable and secure in the fact that people might not receive what you say in the way you expected them to you. Just remember that’s okay. Most of the time if not all of the time you’ll find people deeply appreciate what you have to say.
What type of work policies for grievance have been successful in your opinion?
Zak: I don’t have a good answer to this question save for the notion that employees need to acknowledge that grieving takes a toll mentally and need to provision for this. Happy, supported employees do way better work anyway! In all honesty, I’m learning more about this specific issue and don’t have a comprehensive response to this.
Hey, Zak! I really appreciate you taking the time to be here these past few years have been pretty rough for me and I’ve had several TBI’s that helped contribute to an increase in my anxiety and depression symptoms. I constantly feel hopeless and I do talk to a psychologist but nothing seems to help. I was just wondering if you had any advice on how to get into a more positive mindset and not believe that everything bad happens to you and catastrophize everything.
Zak: One thing that might be a fix is identifying things you can do for your lifestyle that make improvements to wellbeing. Personally, I cut out alcohol, started getting outdoors more and eating better and that helped my anxiety a lot. Also, service work and volunteering was really helpful for me. If you are on prescription drugs or medicating otherwise then (slowly) changing dosage or types of medication can help.
Zak, how do you forgive yourself and or move on from mistakes and bad decisions that you made in the past? I have a problem if I can’t be as happy as I should be because of things that I did in the past.
Zak: I appreciate this question. The short answer is that I’m learning to forgive myself for past actions. This thing you mention is common with me. That said you need to release yourself of the notion that you deserve a life or something because of what you’ve done or your past actions. Today is a new day and you are capable of doing so much if you find a way to forgive yourself and work through any resentments. Tbh this is a life long struggle but if you find away to acknowledge the fact YOU ARE A GOOD PERSON great things will come your way ; it may take awhile but they will.
Hi, Zak! How do you cope with unexpected loss?
Zak: What I neglected to do after my dad’s passing was take care of myself. You can’t be there for others if you are not paying attention to your needs and struggles. Take the time to do what you need to do to get through the day first. Then you’ll have a fuller cup to be there for others. Also support groups were really helpful for me.
What’s the best lessons you’ve learned from your dad in both his life, and in his passing? If that makes sense
Zak: That being unconditionally loving and kind and considerate is one of the secrets to leaving a full life. That and finding connection and common ground. Oh, also, finding gratitude in the day-to-day life is a simple, wonderful way to feel good.
Zak, what do you say to a person that has been in psych hospital over 25 times in three years and always afraid if they talk to their case managers or therapist that they will be put back into the hospital? How can they be open with them?
Zak: I’m sorry you are going through this. Make a list of what you want for yourself and in life and work with your case manager or therapist to help achieve that. If being is open is one of those things that you want then list that out. Find ways to be open about what you want for yourself and communicate that where and when you feel safe and comfortable.
What’s your favorite of your dad’s movies?
Zak: Good Morning Vietnam, The Fisher King, Aladdin
Hey, Zak! How are you today?? I see you’re awfully busy answering all these questions. I’ll check back in a few minutes, sorry for being a bother
Zak: No bother at all! I’m doing great thank you. My son Mickey and my fiancée Olivia are playing in the other room with my Mom (we are all working from home today) and I’m prepping for a move to a new place (smaller but with no stairs). I have coffee and it’s very sunny where I live today in LA.
Hi, Zak, what’s your daily routine? Do you have a particular diet you stick to? Sleep habit? Exercise regimen?
Zak: As I’m entrepreneur my days differ based upon what I’ve got going on for the week. That said, there are some consistencies.
Sleep: I go to bed by 12:30am and try to sleep to 7:30am or 7:45am. I need at least 7 hours of sleep to function at my best.
Eat: I probably eat too much sugar but I’ve made a habit out of loving green vegetables and finding recipes to make them great tasting. If I eat too much bread or pasta I generally get tired. I try to eat more vegetables than meat. I love fish.
Exercise: Need to do this more but I try to get out and take a walk with my son four to five days a week. Starting to layer back in an exercise routine.
Substances: no alcohol, no drugs. I used to drink alcohol but it wasn’t doing anything for me in the long run. Was making me tired and depressed and anxious.
Therapy and Support: I talk to a therapist once a week.
Zak, I’m trying to clear my head but I’ve been thinking about old friends who I used to be so close with and when I see them walk past me like they never knew me it breaks my heart what’s your best advice on how to let go of the past.
Zak: Find people who enrich you versus drain you. It took me forever to come to that conclusion. If they don’t acknowledge you then don’t bother with them. You want to be around and interact with people who leave you feeling fulfilled and happy after you spend time with them. Avoid extractive people who you end up feeling exhausted by after you spend time with them. Also, often I used to take everything really personally and still do sometimes. Often I didn’t feel acknowledged because people were doing what they could just to get through the day dealing with their own stuff. My advice – Find ways to focus on things and people that make you feel better. I loved the book The Four Agreements. It helped me not to dwell so much on others.
Why do you think there has been a dramatic increase in teen suicide? Is it really because of social media as people claim?
Zak: I think social media plays a very real role in all this. When you have the type of trolling that goes down and see people living “their best life” it can be challenging to get through the day doing things that don’t feel great or glamorous while getting bombarded with information and negativity from multiple sources. I think it’s also information overload and technology progressing faster than our ability to evolve to cope as humans given how much we process every single day.
It seems there has been a massive spike in anxiety among people across generations in the US (and possibly abroad). Any ideas what might be causing that, and what advice would you share with someone struggling with a lot of anxiety in their life?
Zak: Information overload and technology processing faster than our ability to cope is contributing to this IMHO. Also, I think the state of the world and our nation can get people worried and upset about the current state of affairs and the future. I have hope though.
Hey Zak, my family and some close friends do not know of a lot of my mental health struggles and ED. I have plenty of supportive friends and resources around me but I am currently living with people who are unaware of my situations. I am afraid of being too much. How would you suggest approaching them and making them aware of my situation? I know I want to talk about it specifically with them but do not know where to begin
Zak: Make a list of things you’d like to achieve with connecting. Start slow, with specific conversations around what you want in speaking. I want to be open with you etc.. these conversations can be really hard and you might not get the desired response. Being open about your wants and needs are a great starting point however.
What is your favorite memory of your father that you can share? I can imagine such a magical life growing up with him as your father!
Zak: There are so many! I loved walking the streets of NYC with him.
Zak, how should I handle when I am talking to friends or girls because I feel bad talking to someone but telling them about all the bad things I did because people will then think I’m weird
Zak: You don’t have to open up to the bad things you feel you did. There’s a time and a place for everything. I think one of the most important things to do is to find ways to forgive yourself for your precious actions. You deserve it.
Zak: Thank you everyone for the wonderful questions and candor. I really appreciate you and the work you are doing. Hang in there and keep doing the things that feel enriching. Life can be hard and challenging but with the right approach and attitude things do get better.