What It’s Like To: Discuss Mental Health at the White House

UC Irvine Ph.D. student Justine Bautista was invited to present her ideas at a youth mental health forum at the nation’s capital.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

I work with a mental health nonprofit, Asian Mental Health Collective, which matches therapists to patients based on cultural compatibility and also houses an online support community. The group was one of the partners for the first-ever Youth Mental Health Action Forum hosted by the White House and MTV Entertainment, and they asked if any volunteers were interested in applying. They were looking for 30 young adults from really diverse backgrounds. I was in shock when I was chosen. I was the only one selected from Orange County, and I was one of two doctoral students who were there. So that really speaks to the fact that there were people from so many different backgrounds.

I was born and raised in Orange County, and I studied psychology and integrated educational studies at Chapman University. After graduating in three years, I wanted to stay in O.C. because I have a huge family here. I ended up joining UCI’s social ecology program and figured out over the last two years here where my passion in research lies, which is digital mental health and, in particular, looking at digital mental health through a cultural lens. 

There is a cultural stigma around mental health and seeking help, especially in the Asian community. A lot of young people are unable to seek help because of the family dynamics and cultures they’re in, which may not be supportive. So digital mental health—online peer support communities, social media, streaming services—is a supplement to in-person therapy. 

For the forum, they flew us to Washington, D.C., in May and we had a full weekend of events, including forming groups and giving presentations about groundbreaking mental health action ideas. My group had an idea for a podcast by Gen Z and for Gen Z with a call to action, which would allow people to create their own digital mental health toolkit. And that has since been picked up by Spotify.

We got to meet Selena Gomez, who talked about her Rare Beauty Initiative. And we also got to meet members of the Biden administration. I had an in-depth conversation with Dr. Jill Biden about the importance of young people being mentored by people in power, especially women. She told me about a college mentorship program she started at the community college where she teaches and encouraged me to do so as well. 

Then the president surprised us. He just walked in very casually and spoke to everyone. That was really incredible. He was exactly how you’d think. He told a lot of stories and he talked about having a friend with PTSD and about his first exposures to mental health issues. He was there talking to us for a long time, to the point that his staff members were trying to pull him away. I was able to shake his hand and thank him for his commitment to increasing access to mental healthcare. It was a very surreal moment.
—As told to Astgik Khatchatryan

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