Mental Health: Shattering the Stigma

Anthony Zhou
Photo by Prestige Photography
by Lifetouch
Aditi Merchant
Photo by Gwyneth Obediente

Allen Zhou
Photo by Yizong Xie


Anthony Zhou, Aditi Merchant, Allen Zhou

Big & Mini

By Stephanie Watson

Even before the pandemic, nearly 1 in 4 Americans over age 65 were socially isolated. One in three people over 45 reported feeling lonely. Then COVID-19 hit, leaving older adults even more isolated than before. Loneliness is more than a feeling—it's a health risk that's been linked to heart disease, stroke, depression, and premature death.

Young people haven't been immune to isolation either. Driven online for learning and social interaction, more than 60% of 18- to 25-year-olds report high levels of loneliness. Aditi Merchant, a senior at The University of Texas at Austin, saw the widespread mental health issues among her college-aged peers.

She, along with UT Austin classmate Allen Zhou and his brother Anthony Zhou, who is a sophomore at Columbia University in New York, wondered, was it possible to bring the two generations together and do something to help forge meaningful connections between them?

Together, they founded Big & Mini—a nonprofit that bridges distance and generations using technology.

It's a simple process: Older adults (Bigs) and young people (Minis) fill out a form on the organization's website. Bigs and Minis are matched (free of charge) based on their interests and goals.

The friendship that (hopefully) blossoms is meant to be mutually beneficial. Minis offer companionship. Bigs dispense advice gained from a lifetime of experience. "I have my own Big, and the perspectives she has are really interesting," Allen Zhou says.

"Both sides are getting a lot from the experience, and because of that, it makes the connections feel a lot more valuable," Merchant says.

In the 2 years since Big & Mini was founded, it has made over 6,500 matches throughout the U.S. and around the world. Bigs and Minis don't only talk online—they've taken cooking classes together, learned new languages, and sometimes traveled hundreds of miles to meet in person.

"People are able to form meaningful relationships through our platform," Merchant says. When they tracked a group of 70 Bigs and Minis using the Duke Social Support Index, an instrument that measures social support in older adults, scores in both groups improved from an average of 4 out of 10 to more than 8 out of 10 within 6 months after the first call. "They felt more supported. They felt like they had someone they could confide in."

One of the very first Bigs who was matched offered a glowing review. "That was the most fun I've had in years! We talked for hours," Kathryn Davis wrote in an email.

Now that the world has started to open up again, the three Big & Mini founders have had to consider their organization's role in a future post-pandemic world. One direction they're pursuing is to have local chapters where members of the virtual platform can meet in person.

In a strange way, the distance created by COVID-19 might have been serendipitous for forging unexpected human connections. "Having the constraint of not being able to have in-person interactions actually gave us the creativity to see what kinds of new people we could meet who we might not otherwise have thought were available to have a conversation with," Anthony Zhou says.

As the three cofounders look toward college graduation and beyond, they say that no matter where their careers take them, they'll honor their commitment to Big & Mini. "We will always be there to continue supporting its growth and make sure it's a valuable platform for our users," Merchant says. "The value we've been able to bring has changed all our lives."

"It feels like we'll never run out of work to do," Anthony adds. "It's both daunting and kind of exciting."

More In This Series


Medical resident Justin Bullock speaks out about suicide and mental health in his profession, using his own personal struggles to help others overcome the stigma.


Through his nonprofit, Next 18, Matt McDonell uses golf to help veterans and first responders deal with trauma through camaraderie, meditation, and mindfulness practices.


Neuroscientist Ariel Brown founded The Emotional PPE Project to ease the mental health burden on health care professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD, WebMD Lead Medical Editor on 7/28/2022

TOC Photos: Allen Zhou, Sabah Jamal, Anthony Zhou

Aditi Merchant, COO, co-founder, Big & Mini.

Allen Zhou, CEO, co-founder, Big & Mini.

Anthony Zhou, CTO, co-founder, Big & Mini.

CDC: "Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions."

Harvard Graduate School of Education: "Loneliness in America."

Kathryn Davis, current Big & Mini participant.