positive mindset

How queer influencer Zoe Stoller is leading the way for inclusive mental health awareness

Zoe Stoller
Zoe Stoller. Photo by Amanda Silberling.

Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. The LGBT National Hotline provides telephone, online chat, and email peer support at 888-843-4564 or www.lgbthotline.org. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255.

“I feel like a lot of people found pandemic hobbies,” says Zoe Stoller (she/they) of content creation. “And this was mine.” 

Before COVID-19, the bubbly influencer, who already identified as queer, was grappling with gender identity and turned to the internet for guidance.

“I decided to watch the content of LGBTQ creators to get some information,” Stoller tells Queerty. “And that was instrumental in helping me find my identity, which is gender fluid.” 

At the same time, Stoller experienced another revelation. 

“I realized how powerful social media can be in creating community and spreading information about LGBTQ identities that aren’t usually talked about, [as well as] mental health.”

Inspired by what they saw, and with a surplus of time thanks to spring 2020’s enforced quarantines, Stoller “decided just to jump headfirst into sharing [original content about] queerness and mental health, education, and visibility. And now it’s my whole career.”

Related: New York’s Devin-Norelle on how the love of queer community inspires hope

Only two years later, Stoller’s multi-hyphenate livelihood as a content creator, educator, and writer includes collaborations with high-profile brands like Google, Pinterest, and TikTok and 70,000 followers across various social media platforms. A former professional in the digital marketing field, they are currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work, which Stoller says is “extraordinarily aligned with all of the content creation and mental health advocacy that I do in my personal life.” 

Stoller has also partnered with Depression Looks Like Me, a campaign aimed at normalizing the conversation about depression in the LGBTQ community through storytelling and the amplification of lived experiences to empower people to seek the mental health care they may need

“My mission is centered around the idea of being who I needed when I was younger,” Stoller says of their participation in Depression Looks Like Me. “I wish I had access to all these mental health resources and tools, stories, and connections this campaign offers. By joining this community, I am hoping others will realize they’re not alone.”

Related: How Hope Giselle overcame bullying to help others live their best lives

Understanding Depression: Knowledge is Power

Zoe Stoller
Zoe Stoller. Photo by Holden Kent Blanco.

The National Institute of Mental Health states that depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States and affects 21 million adults. The LGBTQ community is especially vulnerable to depression and other mental illnesses. Studies show that almost 60 percent of LGBTQ adults experience poor mental health, and the same population uses mental health services at 2.5 times higher rates than their cishet counterparts.

Each year during the first week of October, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) joins organizations and advocates for Mental Illness Awareness Week to “raise awareness of mental illness, fight discrimination and provide support.” NAMI is also a partner organization of Depression Looks Like Me.

According to NAMI, depression may happen spontaneously or result from medical conditions, previous trauma, genetics, or drug and alcohol abuse, among other triggers. Symptoms of depression vary but may include:

  • Changes in sleep and/or appetite
  • Lack of concentration and/or interest in activities
  • Loss of energy
  • Hopelessness or guilty thoughts
  • Physical pain
  • Thoughts of suicide

Related: Chella Man on how art and family helped him take on depression

Surviving and Thriving

Zoe Stoller
Zoe Stoller with their dog, Winnie. Photo by Emma Ziesing.

Stoller’s coming out and mental health journey are intertwined. Seven years ago, the then-undergraduate perceived themselves as “the straightest, most cisgender woman ever to be. I was trying so hard to fit myself in these boxes, and it never felt right,” says Stoller. 

The resulting inner struggles and a lifelong battle with mental health prompted Stoller to seek treatment with a therapist she sees to this day. The decision was life-changing.

 “I was severely depressed at the time and also had suicidal thoughts,” Stoller reflects. “I was able to not only recover from that but also reevaluate who I was, what I wanted in this world, and whether the societal norms and everything I had been taught truly fit with me. And I realized, no, it doesn’t at all. And there’s a whole other world of queerness out there.”

Stoller acknowledges their luck finding a “super LGBTQ-affirming” therapist and knows others may not be so fortunate. 

“I love to talk about my mental health with my friends and family. I’ve seen that being more open and more authentic helps mitigate the effects of my mental health.” — Zoe Stoller

“So many mental health providers are not knowledgeable or accepting of LGBTQ identities, especially some of the less commonly understood ones like gender fluidity, or those under the asexual or aromantic umbrella,” they note. “And I know that’s a huge barrier — not being able to seek treatment out of fear of their provider or counselor just not understanding them, or pathologizing them.”

However, Stoller hopes to fill the gaps by helping to foster what they call the LGBTQ population’s “really strong sense of community,” through studying queerness and mental health in their graduate program, interning at the University of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Center, and continuing their mental health advocacy online. “I think it’s really important to use other means of connection and information-spreading, such as social media and the internet, and help LGBTQ people find resources that can actually be helpful.” 

Stoller balances a busy schedule and prioritizes mental health care by seeing their therapist weekly, spending time with loved ones, and being transparent about personal struggles with in-person and online communities. 

“I love to talk about my mental health with my friends and family,” Stoller says. “It was definitely a lot worse when I thought I couldn’t share. I’ve seen that being more open and more authentic helps mitigate the effects of my mental health.”

Other tools for Stoller include bonding with their dog, Winnie — “my safe space is wherever my puppy is!” — watching “dry, dark comedies” like Nathan for You and Arrested Development, and playing video games. “I have a lot of hobbies,” Stoller says. “I try to actively put myself in spaces where I can be rejuvenated by my hobbies and supported by my friendships and my puppy, so I can support myself to keep moving forward.” 

Though Stoller knows she will always live with depression,  she doesn’t feel controlled by it.

“Through the process of discovering and naming my depression and working to heal from it, I also discovered my queerness. It’s all part of my life story. And I’m really proud to be able to share it now.”

* * * 

Depression is an illness like any other. Access to information and resources is the first step toward seeking help. Healthcare and provider directories, LGBTQ community centers, mental health, suicide hotlines, resources specifically for our BIPOC and trans communities, and campaigns like Depression Looks Like Me can empower those in need. 

Editor’s note: This article mentions suicide. The LGBT National Hotline provides telephone, online chat, and email peer support at 888-843-4564 or www.lgbthotline.org. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255.

Lauren Emily Whalen is a freelance writer, performer, and author of four books. To learn more, follow her on Twitter @laurenemilywri or visit laurenemilywrites.com.