An emotional Selena Gomez explains why mental health is 'personal' at White House, MTV event

Jenna Ryu
USA TODAY
  • On Wednesday, Selena Gomez went to the White House to host the first-ever Mental Health Youth Action Forum.
  • The event, led by MTV Entertainment, urged stakeholders to address the growing youth mental health crisis.
  • The First Lady, Ambassador Susan Rice and young activists also joined to de-stigmatize seeking help.

WASHINGTON — As a proud mental health advocate, Selena Gomez is on a mission to shift the cultural narrative from awareness to action by bringing the issue to the White House. 

Days after her "Saturday Night Live" appearance, Gomez this week stopped by the nation's capital to host the first-ever Mental Health Youth Action Forum led by MTV Entertainment — an event encouraging businesses and peers to address the growing youth mental health crisis affecting more than a third of high school students. The forum kicked off one day before Mental Health Action Day created last year by MTVE to inspire taking meaningful action for well-being.

Donning a navy sleeveless dress with a floral accent, the "Only Murders in the Building" star was joined by first lady Jill Biden, Ambassador Susan Rice and 30 activists and creators— all of whom had different personal stories yet shared the same struggle of knowing what it's like to not be OK. 

"The darkness inside of us can feel heavy at times, but we can share the weight of it together," Biden said Wednesday before introducing Gomez onstage. "It takes courage to be honest about the struggles that you've faced and to tell your stories. And it takes courage to understand that your voice can make a difference, and to show your creativity and talents to all of the world. I'm so proud of everyone here today."

Selena Gomez and Dr. Jill Biden attend the first-ever Mental Health Youth Forum hosted by MTV Entertainment.

'It's not easy for anyone':Selena Gomez on her quarantine cooking show and mental health amid COVID

This is not the first time that Gomez has teamed up with the Biden administration to de-stigmatize mental health, having appeared in a virtual conversation with Kamala Harris about the issue in 2020. But on Wednesday, an emotional Gomez displayed the power of leading through example, service and vulnerability by sharing more about her bipolar diagnosis and why the cause is "very personal" for her. 

"I felt like once I found out what was going on mentally, I found that there was more freedom for me to be OK with what I had," Gomez said. "Bringing attention to mental health through media or just talking about your own journeys can help. It sets the example that it's a topic that can and should be discussed freely and without shame."

Along with inspiring openness, she said she hopes the event will evoke tangible changes from key stakeholders to develop accessible, culturally-competent services and resources for young people in need.

"I want to ensure that everyone, no matter their age, their race, religion, sexual orientation, has access to services that support their mental health," Gomez said.

Selena Gomez speaks onstage about her personal mental health struggles and why she and her Rare Impact Fund are dedicated to furthering the cause.

'At this point, I will take anyone':Selena Gomez makes 'SNL' debut with hopes to find love

The importance of highlighting 'young incredible people who are making a real difference.'

Alongside powerful statements from Gomez, Rice and Biden, the discussion panel also included input from young content creators who detailed their struggles with issues ranging from depression to suicidality. In addition, they shared how to funnel these painful experiences to become change-makers, as a tearful Gomez applauded them for their bravery and candor. 

Selena Gomez hugs youth mental health leader Ayanna Kelly at the White House in Washington, as first lady Jill Biden speaks during the White House Conversation on Youth Mental Health.

President and CEO of Paramount Media Networks and MTV Entertainment Studios Chris McCarthy, who organized the event, said it was "crucial" for the event not only to include professionals, but also to prop up young leaders.

"Obviously we can work with experts. We can work with our adult peers. But how do we empower the generation that this (mental health crisis) is impacting the most?"  McCarthy exclusively told USA TODAY in an interview. "That was the goal of this event… to really elevate and highlight these young incredible people who are making a real difference." 

Children's mental health::What to know a year into the pandemic

After the forum, Ambassador Rice also spoke to USA TODAY about the urgency of tackling the youth mental health.

"All of us to one degree or another, whether personal lives or those of our families and loved ones and community, we’re all are facing this challenge," Rice told USA TODAY. "What I thought was so extraordinary today was one of the young people said, 'what's mentionable is manageable.' And I think that's exactly the message we have to acknowledge the challenge; We have to recognize that it's pervading all ages and all aspects of our society. We're going to be as strong as we possibly can as a nation and care for the people who need it most."

Selena Gomez, more celebs:support Roe v. Wade in NYT ad: 'We will not go back'

What next? Here's what else must be done for the growing youth mental health crisis

Bringing the mental health crisis to the White House is only the beginning of what McCarthy calls a "long-term solution" to de-stigmatization. 

Since 2006, MTV Entertainment has dedicated its programming to eliminate stereotypical and irresponsible representation of mental illness on TV with initiatives like the Mental Health Storytelling Coalition, which was responsible for creating the first-of-its-kind Mental Health Media Guide utilized by NBC Universal, Disney and more.

"(We've) made commitments around positive portrayals of mental health, really de-stigmatizing and normalizing it… and we have committed to doubling the number of positive portrayals of mental health in our programming," McCarthy says. 

MTV Entertainment President and CEO Chris McCarthy told USA TODAY that his mission to addressing mental health representation was personal, after having struggled with deep anxiety as a teen.

Media representation of mental illness:Hollywood has a sordid history with mental health portrayals. It's trying to do better.

Though much progress has been made — as seen by complex portrayals of mental health in shows like HBO Max's "Euphoria" and Netflix's "BoJack Horseman," McCarthy says we need to continue transforming awareness into action to better understand, access and treat mental health issues for young Americans. 

"I think this is going to take a societal movement. It's going to take businesses, it's going to take nonprofits and governments and friends and family to lock arms and really make a sustained difference," McCarthy says. "And we're at the very beginning of that journey. Just the fact that the conversation is being had at this level at so many different places is incredibly important."

Opinion on youth mental health:My young clients build a coping tool box. It's a simple way to help.

In-depth story:Mental health professionals are the ones taking care of us: Who’s taking care of them?