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Fighting for mental health in the White House

By Angel Martinez Published Jul 29, 2022 7:32 am

Looking after one’s mental health is often simplified and romanticized. Social media says that all it takes is a painstakingly crafted routine consisting of facemasks, bullet journals, and scented candles to accompany our guided meditation. But for Justine Bautista, a Filipino-American PhD candidate and researcher based in Orange, California, true self-care requires sustainable, crosscutting interventions — and they’re not always pretty. 

Thankfully, she has none other than the White House to back her up on this one. A few months ago, Justine impulsively applied to be a part of the Biden administration’s first-ever forum on youth mental health. The committee saw the potential in her pitch and invited her to be one of 30 delegates among hundreds of aspirants. 

Young STAR got to speak with Justine about her experience in Washington, DC, and how the two days she spent will create ripples in mental health research both in the US and here in the homeland.

YOUNG STAR: Could you tell us about the project you presented to everyone at the White House?

JUSTINE BAUTISTA: We came up with a podcast that meshes the voices of storytellers and experts in the mental health field, and gives them evidence-based resources based on whatever topic of that week they're talking about. 

For example, if we had a podcast episode centered around AAPI Heritage Month, we might have a young Asian person telling their mental health story and a therapist who specializes in AAPI mental health. The host might facilitate a conversation about AAPI mental health with them and resources would be presented, which listeners would be able to compile into their own online resource kit.

I heard that you were able to speak with President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden. What was that experience like?

You’d think that the First Couple were only present in the conference for the cameras and the press, but they even went in a separate room with us to privately discuss our ideas. There, President Biden not only listened but also spoke to us extensively about his plans in the mental health space and the budget he’s allotted for it. I also had a conversation with Dr. Jill Biden on being a woman in a doctoral program and the importance of integrating vulnerability in a field that’s often seen as stoic or put on a pedestal. 

I think the thing I really appreciated was that they were willing to listen to what we were passionate about and what we wanted to see happen.

I heard Selena Gomez played a huge role in promoting the event. What was interacting with her like? 

I know it’s so clichéd to say that celebrities are just like us but I was able to see her a little nervous before she presented. She turned to me and said, “I don’t know why I’m here!” To which I answered, “Me either!” 

Justine with First Lady Jill Biden and Selena Gomez at the White House.

Selena also talked to us a lot about how she feels like we’re the next generation of leaders, which is very powerful to hear from someone who’s been so influential since our childhood. We all looked up to her since she was on Wizards of Waverly Place so to have her say that she’s proud of us was like seeing our past selves cheering us on.

What are the distinct mental health struggles faced by Asian populations?

In my work with the Asian Mental Health Collective, we found that we’re in a new era where a lot of younger Asian people are starting to open up to the idea of actually accessing mental health care and even going into the field. But a barrier unique to Asians and especially Filipinos is our struggle with family dynamics, particularly the presence of multigenerational households, which shouldn’t be neglected in mental health care settings.

We have grandparents, parents, and their kids all living in the same house, with these multiple layers of mental health stigma, of cultural expectations, and the need to process that. It’s distinct to us that we have to overcome this innate notion that we’re not allowed to seek help. 

How is self-care and mental health an institutional rather than an individual concern?

I think the problem lies in not knowing: first, people don’t always know the complex issues they have. How can we express or process the kind of trauma we have if we don’t know how to name it or to spot it? This is where government support is supposed to come in: these are things that are supposed to be discussed in schools, talked about widely in communities, and provided with national backing.

People also don’t know how to access care because they don’t know what’s out there. As a result, they go for immediate solutions rather than take a leap of faith. I feel this is something that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Filipinos are super involved and tight-knit: everyone knows what’s happening to everyone, which could worsen stigmatization even further. Rather than go through all of these barriers, it’s so much easier to start bullet journaling or go on a walk. 

While these little things are important on a day-to-day basis to cope with short-term stressors, they will never solve larger issues. This is why we need a lot of community organizations, people lobbying, advocating for increased access to even information on what mental health is.

What is next for you and the project you’re working on?

I’m currently in a doctoral program, taking up Social Ecology at the University of California Irvine, so I’ll definitely be busy getting my degree. As for my project, I’ve incorporated more policymaking and community work and looked into how these play a role in the solutions I want, both here and in the Philippines.

Filipinos tend to have a tough time opening up those conversations around mental health. We also often use religion or blame poor parenting for mental disorders rather than actually seeking out resources. I think it’s important for this work to be seen by those in the Philippines since it allows them to destigmatize their mental health and understand that their experiences are valid and deserving of attention. Hopefully, providing these tools helps Filipino folks who are struggling and might not know where to begin.