Siavash Zohoori Brings Empathy Into His Advocacy

Siavash Zohoori Brings Empathy Into His Advocacy

Young Minds Advocacy spoke with Siavash Zohoori, the keynote speaker for this year’s UC Davis Mental Health Conference, as well as one of the founders of the #HowAreYou campaign. Across the University of California system, the #HowAreYou campaign has championed the need for accessible, diverse mental health services and supports that engage with the student communities they serve. Zohooriworks for the San Mateo County Health System’s Office of Diversity and Equity, heading up its storytelling program. In our conversation, Zohoori talked about student mental health, his advocacy, and how stories can push campaigns like #HowAreYou forward.

Smitha G: When you started to put together the #HowAreYou campaign, what were your hopes? What did you hope would happen for students?

Siavash Z: I think my hope was that we’d be able to provide more equitable & appropriate services for all students. Primarily, going into it, I think it was well-known by all the students that mental health is under-resourced, and that a lot of people weren’t getting care.

I didn’t have a therapist who looked like me. It was challenging for me to navigate the system, and receive care when I needed it. And a lot of spaces did not foster wellness & recovery. At that point, I think it was really clear to us to emphasize those three issues.

SG: Diversity, accessibility and outreach.

SZ: Right.

SG: The way that you found mental health care across the UCs to be structured, did you feel like students had faith in & utilized services? Did you feel that students regularly used, wanted to use, and trusted services?

SZ: I think they really wanted to use services. And this is evident in the rate of students who had first time appointments at CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services] — which was way higher than the rate of new students. That made it really clear that people were going out of their way to seek out services, and that students really wanted care.

The unfortunate part is that when students went to get that care, they had to wait four or five weeks for their appointment. That ended up having the consequence of people trusting their therapists, and the people that support — but not trusting the system, because it didn’t have the resources in place to support them.

SG: I know you’ve done a lot of storytelling in your own advocacy. What role do you feel stories have played, and could continue to play, in the #HowAreYou campaign?

SZ: Stories are the way that we can understand statistics, and understand some of the gaps that exist in the services that we provide. As we identified issues, we would gather students who were affected by service barriers to share their stories so that the people providing that service could prioritize solving those issues, relative to whatever else they were working on.

At the beginning of the quarter, #HowAreYou held a presentation, and we invited lots of the people involved in student advocacy. We explained to them the system that we work in, some of the gaps, and asked them what they wanted to change, and tallied [the responses] up. We’d take that to the administration — so not just CAPS, but also the Vice Chancellor, and other people in power so they could work to challenge those issues.

And we would also invite students to hiring panels. So the hiring panels were often white students or just the employees in CAPS, but I think as you diversify that room, they’re able to say, “Oh, I like this therapist more,” and are able to actually pick someone that they’re comfortable with, and that have priorities that they feel line up with the students’.

SG: What do you think it is about being a student that makes student advocacy so powerful?

SZ: Students hold so much power because the administration works for them, the people who are working in the university work for them. And students hold all the information — so just like the conversation we were having earlier about lived experience, the students know what’s good for them. The power they hold is an answer, and knowing that they’re the voices that the university should be listening to.

SG: To kind of close things out, what makes this work personal to you? What carries you forward?

SZ: I think empathy that I had for students. I had to navigate [Counseling and Psychological Services] myself, so I experienced the long wait times when I wanted to see my therapist, and I could only see my therapist for 30 minutes every couple of weeks…

… But also, that was the only way I could see a therapist.

So… I think the work came out of that empathy for students. I also had really good people around me who cared about mental health, and valued that stuff. And I think what we should be doing as communities is valuing the way that we all see issues, and working together to solve them.


Siavash Zohoori is currently working as a storytelling program specialist for the San Mateo County Health System, where he helps young people tell their stories and turn them into action. He has spoken at a number of community spaces, including high schools, student organizations, and research conferences, and continues to tell his story to advocate for youth mental health.

About the Author:

Smitha Gundavajhala
Smitha Gundavajhala is a Communications Associate at Young Minds Advocacy, and was previously a Law Clerk and Policy Intern with YMA. As a student mental health advocate at UC Berkeley, she worked to integrate remote counseling, confidential peer counseling spaces, and cultural and structural competency in institutional spaces. As a second-generation Indian American, she believes that both mental health and advocacy are simultaneously personal and community-informed, and honors both processes in her work.