BHS Alumna Returns from D.C. Mental Health Forum

Photo courtesy Meera Varma | Meera Varma, a graduate of Burbank High School, recently went to the White House for the Mental Health Youth Action Forum, where she advocated for mental health resources and policies.

First published in the June 4 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

Burbank resident Meera Varma didn’t expect to meet the president when she went to the White House to advocate for mental-health policies.

The fact that, Varma, a Burbank High School alumna, who recently graduated from UCLA with a psychology degree, was standing in the White House’s Blue Room last month was remarkable enough.

Having herself experienced periods of deep depression while a student at Burbank High School, she’d since become an advocate for resources she wished she’d had. In May, she went to Washington with 29 other young people from MTV Entertainment Group’s Mental Health Youth Action Forum to persuade politicians and technology industry representatives to implement new policies.

Varma had already met with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, as well as mental health advocate and entertainer Selena Gomez. Then, the door to the Blue Room creaked open, and President Joe Biden entered.

Photo courtesy Meera Varma | President Joe Biden greeted the 30 young activists of the Mental Health Youth Action Forum last month, including Burbank resident Meera Varma.

“He was just trying to connect with us, and he was honestly such a nice man,” Varma recalled in an interview, adding that the group had a lively discussion with Biden regarding their personal experiences and the need for mental-health initiatives.

The meeting with the president and First Lady Jill Biden thrilled Varma, but it wasn’t why she and her peers had come. After departing, members of the group found themselves at a showroom with representatives from Yahoo, Zoom, YouTube, Snapchat and other technology companies, giving several presentations regarding the importance of mental health resources.

Varma’s team argued that schools should have to list the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s phone number on the back of student identification cards. The topic is personal for Varma, who said that she almost didn’t make it to her 18th birthday.

“If I had that Suicide Prevention Hotline … in high school, a lot of crises could have been averted,” she said.

Varma plans to advocate for such mental-health initiatives in the Burbank Unified School District, where she said teachers supported her when she was experiencing depression.

Armed with a grant of more than $5,000 given to each forum participant by Zoom, she will spend the summer trying to persuade the BUSD Board of Education to update student ID cards with the lifeline number.

But the lifeline isn’t just for those with an immediate crisis, Varma emphasized — many people also call the number to seek mental-health advice for themselves and their loved ones.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34 in 2019. But the CDC also notes that crisis intervention, social emotional learning programs and mental-health care access — among other resources — could prevent suicides.

“I’d really want to see Burbank Unified take that step and prioritize student mental health,” Varma said, adding that starting on July 16, anyone in the country can reach the lifeline by calling 988. The current number — (800) 273-8255 — will remain active.

Varma will return to UCLA in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in mental-health policy, and hopes to earn a second master’s degree in public health. She aims to promote mental health with a private company or in government.

“Leaving this event, I felt way more hopeful,” she said of the forum. “Because youth and Gen Z, we can have all the mental health ideas and plans that we want, but, at the end of the day, we need money and we need support to fund our ideas, and knowing how passionate and how dedicated these industry partners were … made me so happy.”