First published in the April 30 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
A Burbank resident will be among 30 young activists at a White House event in May urging industry leaders and the Biden-Harris administration to prioritize mental health initiatives.
Meera Varma, a senior psychology student at UCLA, will join dozens of teenagers and young adults in crafting mental health campaigns they will present to attendees of the Mental Health Youth Action Forum at the White House. During the inaugural forum, organized by MTV Entertainment Group and several mental health nonprofits, Varma and her group will address media companies such as Snapchat, Black Entertainment Television and Spotify, as well as senior federal officials.
Varma’s group, she explained in an interview, will advocate for employers to allow their workers to take time off for their mental health, similar to but separate from sick days. She also wants to see schools offer similar breaks for students.
“We want students, even in high school, to be able to take a mental health day off if they’re feeling really overwhelmed,” said Varma, a Burbank High School alumna. “I know that could have definitely benefitted me.”
The topic of mental health is personal for Varma, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in social welfare at UCLA. She’s been advocating for mental health resources since she was 14, when she regularly experienced what she calls “mental health episodes” during class. And when she was 17, Varma added, she almost died by suicide.
This week, she celebrated her 22nd birthday. Varma credited her teachers at Burbank High School for supporting her and telling her that they wanted her in their class, even if she couldn’t see a purpose for her life. She participated in a Burbank Unified School District panel in 2018 to help normalize conversations regarding mental health issues. Now, as an activist with the Shawn Mendes Foundation and an intern with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, she’s encouraging educators nationwide to include information on mental health resources in their syllabi.
“I think it’s really important for educators to be open to mental health and care for their students [in a way] that they would care for their own child,” Varma said.
Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the AFSP, which estimates that an average of 130 suicides occur every day. Many experts and nonprofits have also reported that the threat of the coronavirus and ensuing isolation have worsened many people’s mental health.
Discussing mental health can be especially challenging for members of communities where the topic carries a particular stigma, Varma said. As a first-generation Indian American woman, she’s had to learn how to explain depression to her family despite not having the vocabulary for certain terms in Hindi. To communicate better, she’s shown her parents TEDx Talks with Hindi subtitles regarding mental illnesses, and has even drawn pictures to detail how medication works and affects the brain.
Varma also believes many misconceptions regarding mental health remain, including that only people with “something wrong” need therapy or medication. But she noted that someone who has a physical condition would not be looked down on for seeking treatment.
“Just because you can’t see a … mental health condition because it’s in your brain, it doesn’t mean it’s not real,” Varma said.
“I think something everyone can do is close their mouth and open up their ears and really listen to people,” she added.
On a larger scale, Varma believes political officials need to prioritize student mental health more — a point on which she plans to pressure federal executives during the forum. On a local level, she wants to see the BUSD offer mental health days and make counseling more accessible, particularly for those experiencing cultural shame.
She encourages those who are facing challenges with their mental health to seek help, pointing out that the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-8255, will be able to be accessed nationwide starting July 16 by dialing 988.
After she graduates with her master’s degree, Varma plans to focus her career on mental health policy and continue to advocate for more resources.
And while she acknowledges that it may be difficult to convince federal officials to listen to her group’s message, she herself is a case study of the importance of those resources.
“I really want to be an example and say, ‘Look, this is someone that almost didn’t make it to 18, but I am here right now,’” Varma said.
If you or a loved one is feeling suicidal, call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 to speak to a trained counselor.