White House turns focus to youth mental health

White House event on mental health features actress Selena Gomez

First lady Jill Biden, Juan Acosta, Selena Gomez and Vivek Murthy appear on stage at Wednesday’s Mental Health Youth Forum at The White House. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for MTV Entertainment)
First lady Jill Biden, Juan Acosta, Selena Gomez and Vivek Murthy appear on stage at Wednesday’s Mental Health Youth Forum at The White House. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for MTV Entertainment)
Posted May 18, 2022 at 3:58pm

For Jazmine Wildcat, a young member of the Northern Arapaho tribe in Wyoming, finding a therapist who understood her struggles was difficult.

“Where I’m from, on the reservation, it’s not very talked about,” she said Wednesday, with tears in her eyes, during an event at the White House focused on the nation’s youth mental health crisis. “I’ve been to way too many funerals, and so I took the liberty to really, you know, say this isn’t OK.”

On Wednesday, Wildcat was not alone. 

At an event featuring 30 youth activists, actress and singer Selena Gomez, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, first lady Jill Biden and White House Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice, the nation’s youth mental health crisis was front and center. 

Wildcat said she coped by starting a local group that uses volunteering and activism, saying she wanted to show the importance of talking about mental health. 

“Can I give you a hug?” asked Murthy, who issued an advisory in December warning of the youth mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Each of us has the power to use our voice to change how we think, to help shape how the people around us think and to lead by example,” he said, pointing to Gomez, who has been public about her mental health. She is a social media influencer who has 319 million Instagram followers. “She has led by example in being open and sharing not just with one or two people, but with millions of people.”

“Just by talking about your own journeys, [it] can help. It sets the example that it’s a topic that can and should be discussed freely and without shame,” said Gomez, who has one of the top five most followed accounts on Instagram. “We need as much help as we can possibly get developing resources and services and increasing access to those services for young people.” 

The event came as Congress has amped up its focus on passing legislation to improve access to treatment, crisis care, and prevention strategies and other aspects of behavioral health.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee marked up its mental health package Wednesday, and Senate Finance and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee markups on mental health packages are also expected this summer.

The Biden administration announced $2 million in grant funding Wednesday to establish a National Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness to help protect children online.

The group at the White House also included Diana Chao, a Chinese immigrant who despite her own struggles with bipolar disorder founded the largest global youth-for-youth mental health nonprofit, and Jorge Alvarez, who started getting active in mental health advocacy at Rutgers University before becoming a TikTok creator focused on sharing stories with over 140,000 followers. 

All the speakers echoed a passion for reducing stigma for those seeking mental health treatment and sharing personal stories. 

The event was conducted in partnership with Viacom and the Mental Health Youth Action Forum through Health and Human Services.

Jill Biden spoke about her daughter Ashley, a social worker who would share some of the challenges of the trauma she saw in her everyday work when they lived together. She said Ashley was inspired by the hope she would feel when able to help her clients.

Rice said while the administration is committed to tackling the mental health crisis, community partnerships will be essential.

“This is not a problem that government can solve alone,” said Rice.