Aija Mayrock did not have a good freshman year of high school.
After enduring constant bullying by peers, she was targeted in a mean-spirited joke: Someone she had never met dressed up as her for Halloween, wearing a sign around her neck that simply read “Aija Mayrock.” The student posted the photos, which were widely circulated online.
Mayrock, now 23, was confused by the prank and even more confused by what happened afterward. “People were saying that I was ‘disgusting and should die’ or that I ‘deserved all of this,’” she wrote in a 2017 essay for Seventeen.
Mayrock turned to writing — an outlet that would eventually help her overcome the negativity in her past. She packaged personal stories, inspirational messages and survival tips into her first book, The Survival Guide to Bullying.
The book’s success earned her a large online following and opened her eyes to the positive aspects of social media. But after enduring the torment from her peers, Mayrock admits that she was “terrified of using social media to promote my book or to just get my story out there because — at that point in my life — I had only experienced the negative side of social media and all of the cyber bullying that can come with it.”
“I was bullied for eight years of my life. I wrote a book because I needed to find a way to cope and heal from what I had gone through, especially the mental health effects,” Mayrock said during a panel presented by Facebook in their New York City offices. The panel, called “Today You’re You, and That’s Enough” was in partnership with Dear Evan Hansen, the Broadway play about teen bullying, and moderated by Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News’ chief medical correspondent.
These days, Mayrock is a teen activist who regularly uses social media to support other teens’ mental health. Her Instagram feed is full of uplifting pictures, videos and captions and her followers respond in kind with supportive comments. During the panel, she acknowledged the double-edged sword of social media: “Of course there’s a negative side. But I also think it has served as this web for people from all over the world to connect and unite. And to talk about the things that are maybe still taboo in their cultures and their communities.”
Mayrock added that future leaders, many of whom are social media influencers like herself, first emerged online, then gained a following — and are now able to take their message offline and into the world. Examples include people who have started powerful movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, both of which gained momentum when a few brave people started to speak up on social media.
Tomorrow begins #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth. • I have a lot of exciting projects coming out that talk about mental health and I can’t wait to share them with you, Aija Fam. • I struggled a lot with my mental health as teenager, but I never knew how to talk about it. I always thought that I could deal with it on my own. I always thought that talking about how I was feeling was complaining about my life. My life was so amazing. But that didn’t mean that how I felt inside was not valid. • I was so anxious that food became the most unappetizing thing and I didn’t want to eat. I was depressed, isolated myself, and stopped dreaming about my future (something I had always done). I wasn’t sure if I wanted to live. But I didn’t know the language to describe how I was feeling. I didn’t know that I was struggling with my mental health. • Years later, I went to therapy and it changed my life. I started talking to my family about what I was feeling. I began to give my vulnerability permission to exist. I wish I had done this sooner. But I was ashamed. I wanted to get through it on my own. • I share this with you all, Aija Fam, because I constantly receive messages from people who are struggling with mental health. Many of you believe that no one understands you. And I get that. But people do understand. People are there to help. Even when it seems like no one is listening, there are people who will hear you. • So please continue to ask for help. Continue to advocate for yourself. Give your vulnerability permission to exist. You can and will make it through whatever you are going through. • This is a picture of me smiling because I’ve worked on myself, I’ve pulled through, and I am so so so so so happy – I never imagined this was possible.
A post shared by Aija Mayrock (@aijamayrock) on Apr 30, 2019 at 8:19am PDT
Another young person who participated in the Facebook panel was teen journalist and mental health advocate Malik Mercier, who gained a following after hosting Instagram’s March For Our Lives coverage. Mercier also acknowledged the positives of social media, saying it was an online post that first gave him the courage to seek treatment for his mental health issues. The 19-year-old, who openly speaks about his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, made a strong a case for the mental health awareness generated online.
“Young people just want to be heard,” he told PEOPLE. “There are so many pieces of me that I’m still figuring out.”
Mercier says his Instagram has become a safe place for his peers to do the same. One of his recent captions reads, “it’s May aka #mentalhealthawarenessmonth here in the US. my wish for you is to be mentally okay with not just what you used to look like, or what you hope you will look like, but this month…if just for *once*, I want you to be happy + okay with where you are and what you look like this very second. right now, my friend.”
Still, he told PEOPLE that once people choose to talk about their mental health journey on social media, they have to be prepared for all different types of reactions.
“You can take your time (to post),” Mercier told PEOPLE. “You want to take time to process it for yourself.”