Finally, I dared to order food by myself at the age of 14. Maintaining eye contact with the waiter, I said “One portion of Iskender Kebab, please.” Although a casual act for a lot of people, I never imagined myself pulling off this feat. I was one step closer to freedom from an invisible chain that held me back for years: social anxiety.
For me, social anxiety was different from being shy. It was feeling as if my heart was going to flee from my chest anytime I entered a room full of people. It was being consumed by negative thoughts and “What ifs” anytime I tried to talk to someone. It was having to find an excuse anytime I was presented with new opportunities. It was avoiding any social interaction anytime someone asked me to hang out with them. It was having to live with the burden of insecurity, anxiety, loneliness, and hopelessness every single day.
My story with social anxiety started when I was just 9-years-old. I was constantly bullied by my peers because I was overweight, wore glasses, and came from humble means. Sometimes, life at home was difficult, too. After these experiences, social anxiety was a harsh reality I had to get used to. Unfortunately, as I grew older, things only got harder. During my early teenage years, I felt extremely lonely, hopeless, and disconnected. Through time, these feelings intensified and became unbearable. Life felt meaningless and without purpose. I had zero energy or motivation to continue moving forward. At 15, everything got so bad that I thought about ending my life. Fortunately, I didn’t go through with it and sought help. I saw how seeking help changed my life for the better, so I wanted to be the help other people, especially kids and teens, can seek.
Around the time of this decision, COVID-19 hit Turkey, and I saw the negative impact that uncertainty and isolation had on youth mental health. So, although I was scared and reluctant at first, I took action and launched One Smile Effect, Turkey’s first and only youth-led mental health organization. There, I began supporting youth wellbeing by providing free and accessible mental health resources, education and awareness programs, support groups, and more. So far, with my team of over 100 volunteers from 20 countries, we have impacted over 2,500 teens from 60 countries.
What began as an online platform that just wanted to put a smile on young people’s faces shortly became an award-winning global organization. Now, I continue to spread mental health advocacy and leave my mark through leadership, innovation, and storytelling.