First lady Dr. Jill Biden and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy led a conversation at the White House on Wednesday for the first-ever Mental Health Youth Action Forum, where they were joined by Selena Gomez and 30 mental health activists and content creators. By both sharing individual experiences with mental health and mental illness, and introducing actionable ways to be proactive about mental well-being, the group highlighted the Biden-Harris administration's priority in tackling the nation's mental health crisis. Dr. Murthy explains that the mission is two-fold.
"We have to, in parallel, work on building awareness and driving action. Both are important because without the awareness, without destigmatizing mental health, people won't come forward to talk about it, they'll be worried about being out there advocating for it. So that's why we've had to continue that work," the U.S. surgeon general tells Yahoo Life. "But there's a lot happening on the action front."
Murthy went on to explain the administration's priorities on a policy level, focusing on expanding access to mental health care by training more mental health providers and getting rid of barriers to effective telemedicine across the country. He also spoke about the importance of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008.
"It is a very important law because it made sure that courts stipulated that we've got to not discriminate in how we reimburse for mental health services," he explains. "We've got to treat it just like we do physical health services."
The young mental health advocates who sat alongside Biden and Murthy at the forum spoke to how universal these issues are by sharing that not everybody has mental illness, but "we all have mental health." To address this, Murthy introduced ideas about investing in prevention.
"We've got to get more counselors in our schools that invest in those community-based and school-based programs that we know work to reduce the likelihood that young people will struggle with mental health concerns afterward. That also is a place where the president is pushing for investment in his budget," Murthy says. "These are the actions we're taking on a policy level. But what you saw today was so important, because it is young people stepping up to not only build awareness but take action in their communities. That's also going to make a difference."
Among the youth leaders present were Mahmoud Khedr, Jorge Alvarez and Juan Acosta — three young men whose intersectional identities are at the forefront of their advocacy work as a result of what they experienced as a lack of cultural competency in the space. Alvarez tells Yahoo Life, "If you don't have community or you can't find it, build it."
These communities and connections can even work to address the rising suicide rate among young people, according to Murthy.
"Suicide is an incredibly painful crisis in our country. People like me and many others have lost family members to suicide and it feels very personal, even though years pass," he says. "What we've got to do is make sure number one that people don't feel like they have to suffer in silence and in shame if they are in fact having thoughts of suicide."
The suicide rate among young people had increased 57% in the decade prior to the pandemic, Murthy explains, and the pandemic has also exacerbated a mental health crisis among adolescents. "It starts with making sure people feel that it's OK to ask for help," he says. "Secondly, we've got to make sure that help is there. This is where peer support communities can be so powerful, as well, because one of the greatest challenges about struggling with mental illness is the isolation that comes from that."
While mental health services and access to them are a work in progress, Murthy notes the power in the communities that young people can create among themselves.
"You don't have to have a medical degree or a nursing degree or a degree in mental health to be able to help be a part of the solution, to be able to help others heal. You just have to have the willingness and the compassion to reach out to your friends, to be there for them, to check on them, recognizing you can't always tell from the outside if people are doing OK," he says. "If we do that, if we all step up and do our part to be there for the people in our life, if we destigmatize these struggles that many of us deal with but often in silence and if in parallel, we work on the policy piece of making sure help is there when people need it, I think we can address the mental health crisis and I think that's what we're obligated to do as a country."
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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