May 24, 2022 | Articles

Showcasing the power of youth voice at the first-ever Mental Health Youth Action Forum

By: Sierra Fox-Woods, Program Officer, The Upswing Fund

Over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a mentor to a group of incredible youth mental health advocates as they prepared for the first-ever Mental Health Youth Action Forum, hosted by MTV in coordination with the Biden-Harris Administration and Selena Gomez and the Rare Impact Fund. In preparation for the forum, The Upswing Fund for Adolescent Mental Health joined 17 other leading mental health non-profits to work with youth advocates to develop campaign ideas that would move young adults from mental health awareness to action.

The forum kicked-off in grand fashion at The White House last Wednesday with President Biden’s Domestic Policy Advisor, Susan Rice, offering opening remarks underscoring the importance of youth mental health. Having gotten to know the group of advocates who were the guests of honor, it was wonderful to watch as the East Room’s double doors opened dramatically and in walked the youth mental health advocates led by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, and advocate and musician Selena Gomez. Photo courtesy of Jill Biden via Twitter

It was an emotional and inspiring experience listening to the participants’ stories and journeys. They bravely shared the many hardships they have overcome—from extreme loneliness to suicide attempts—and how their recovery inspired their own personal mission to become an advocate so that future generations could be seen, heard, and cared for in ways that they hadn’t been. Watch the full conversation below...

And just as they were getting ready to leave, none other than President Joe Biden surprised the group to share his heartfelt thanks for their leadership!

“Coachella for Mental Health” & other creative campaigns

For the second part of the forum, youth advocates split into the six groups they had been working in for the past few months and pitched their ideas. Each group blew the audience away, including media industry representatives from Spotify, Pinterest, Upworthy, and the National Ad Council.

They pitched concepts like a new world built in the Metaverse, a movement reminding each of us of our inherent and culture-based healing capabilities, and #MeDay, a campaign that would encourage you to be self-centered and culminate in a “Coachella for Mental Health” event. Most impressive across all presentations was the diversity of perspectives and experiences that went into building each of the concepts.

As an extra special surprise (as if President Biden’s visit wasn’t enough!) Zoom Cares ended the event with an incredibly generous $5,500 grant to each of the youth participants to begin to move their ideas forward.

Adolescent mental health awareness on the upswing

My time at the forum was both personally and professionally unforgettable. Beyond the excitement of going to The White House for the first time and feeling like a proud mom watching the group I mentored present, I appreciate the monumental mark the Mental Health Youth Action Forum will have on the broader movement that’s taking the mental health of diverse adolescents seriously.

Over the past two years I’ve taken a deep dive into the adolescent mental health crisis and become an advocate for culturally responsive care and community-based approaches.

To date, we’ve awarded nearly $12 million in grants to 92 partners across the country, and in partnership with our grantee partners, produced a series of action-oriented recommendations for mental health stakeholders to make a real difference in the lives of underserved, unheard, and often un-seen youth.

I’m proud to be a part of this passionate community of advocates and non-profit partners and grateful for the opportunity to have seen first-hand just how much momentum this issue has gained.

Two themes sum up my experience at the forum

The power of meaningful youth engagement and leadership.

This next generation knows what they need and knows how to build it – they just need the right support and resources.

I met so many young entrepreneurs who saw a gap in their community and stepped up to fill it. They’re creating solutions and providing services like management consulting for neurodivergent creators, accessible mobile apps built on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) concepts, and even a global platform to promote storytelling (and story-listening) as a healing practice.

"Solutions need to be built by us, for us” – Sophie Szew

The necessity of culturally relevant mental health care.

Beyond broad definitions of culture, forum participants highlighted the importance of talking about micro-communities with shared values, struggles, and aspirations. Instead of speaking in generalities, they drilled down to intersectional trans, disabled, neurodivergent, religious, and regional communities—each with unique experiences, needs, and solutions. It’s clear that so personal an issue as mental health cannot be addressed in broad strokes and requires a variety of intersectional approaches.

From therapists who look like you to teachers and counselors who have walked in your shoes, it’s important that mental health care comes from a place of shared experience and culture.

The path forward

We need resources in the hands of community leaders like the youth who presented last week. This is why I’m so proud of the work we’re doing at The Upswing Fund to connect philanthropy with community-based organizations who deliver culturally responsive services to adolescents of color and LGBTQ+ youth across the nation. I look forward to continuing to build on this momentum.

While we’ve got a lot of work to do to normalize mental health care and ensure access to care for all who need it, I left last week’s Mental Health Youth Action Forum feeling more hopeful than ever. There is an amazing community of youth leaders across the country who are dedicated to addressing this national crisis along with non-profit and industry partners.

While we may not see population-level improvements in adolescent mental health for some time, I’m confident that we’ll start to hear more success stories at the community-level, where nuanced approaches to culturally responsive care are deployed by and for the youth that need them.

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