Tears, hugs and personal testimonies marked the inaugural White House Conversation on Youth Mental Health led by the US Department of Health and Human Services, and MTV/Viacom.
The May 18 event featured First Lady Dr. Jill Biden; US Ambassador Susan Rice, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council; US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy; singer, actor and mental health advocate Selena Gomez and the real stars of the show—a diverse group of young mental health activists selected to bring forth their stories and activism to help others.
The gathering at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, timed to take place during global Mental Health Awareness Month and the day before the MTV Entertainment-led Mental Health Action Day, was a warm one. It resembled more talk show than official briefing, with speakers positioned on cushy white benches and chairs under a display of brightly hued signage that emphasized the heart of the matter: Mental Health Is Health.
Gomez spoke about the Rare Impact Fund, the social impact division of her Rare Beauty makeup company launched to help people get access to mental health services and support. She was joined in DC by her mother, producer Mandy Teefey, with whom she co-founded mental health organization Wondermind.
“Mental health is very personal for me,” she said from the stage. “And I hope that by using my platform to share my own story and working with incredible people like all of you I can help others feel less alone and find the help they need, which is honestly all I want.”
Murthy said the Administration is “building a movement to address mental health in America. We want to build a society where no person has to feel isolated and shamed because of their struggles. We want to build a world where anyone who needs help can get it, and get it quickly. And were also looking to do something bigger, which is to build a world where we all look out for one another.”
Noting the struggles that have been particularly salient since the rise of the pandemic in March 2020, Dr. Biden cited “the isolation, the anxiety and, yes, the grief” so many are facing. “They are wounds that sometimes go unseen. Too often cloaked in secrecy and shame. But young people don’t have to face these challenges alone. No one does.”
Among the young people in the room were Jazmine Wildcat, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe
Jorge Alvarez used on-campus mental health resources to grow Active Minds into the largest mental health organization at Rutgers and is sharing his self-healing journey with his 140,000 TikTik followers and engaging in advocacy work. When it came to his own healing from depression, “The biggest barrier to entry was not having someone who looked like me—a Latino male,” he said, noting he was taught to never talk about mental health and his work is “pushing against everything I was raised with.”
Diana Chao, a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant from Southern California, is living with bipolar disorder and founded Letters to Strangers, the largest global youth-for-youth mental health nonprofit, which impacts more than 35,000 people every year on six continents. She cited “not only the power of storytelling, but the implicit story-listening. That empathy builds a community that’s so hard to find,” and noted the importance of a proactive vs. reactive approach to mental illness.
Several of the participants were also in attendance the night before at an evening of discussions hosted by Pinterest at the Renwick Gallery. Dubbed Light The Shadow, the event featured Pinterest chief content officer Malik Ducard and organizations including #HalfTheStory.
All of them have participated in a series of mentored workshops to develop solutions based on culturally grounded practices, storytelling, intersectional advocacy, crisis response and peer support, and several spoke at the White House about series, documentaries and virtual communities they are developing.
“As the rise of mental health issues have created a second pandemic, especially among young people, MTV Entertainment convened a coalition of entertainment leaders and mental health experts to harness the power of storytelling with the goal of ending the stigma surrounding mental health,” said Chris McCarthy, Chris McCarthy, president/CEO of Paramount
“In coordination with the Biden-Harris administration and an impressive coalition of leading mental health nonprofits, we are going a step further and empowering young people to use storytelling to share their powerful voices and diverse experiences to help themselves and support others.”
The Mental Health Youth Action Forum nonprofit partners include AAKOMA, Active Minds, Asian Mental Health Collective, Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, Born This Way, Bring Change to Mind, Jed Foundation, Mental Wealth Alliance, NAMI, National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, Poderistas, Rare Impact Fund by Rare Beauty, Student Veterans of America, Trans Lifeline, The Trevor Project, The Upswing Fund for Adolescent Mental Health, Vibrant Emotional and We R Native.