By Smitha Gundavajhala, Law Clerk & Policy Intern
This is a letter through which I hope to tell you a little bit about who I am, what I hope to accomplish, and why mental health is a topic that’s so deeply personal to me.
I’m a 3rd year student at UC Berkeley, majoring in Public Health and minoring in Education. I’m an Indian-American (a second-generation immigrant) and I use she/her pronouns. I have a small but tight-knit family, and a huge passion for community-building and education. All these facets of identity matter. They inevitably shape who I am, but more importantly, I have realized that they shape my mental health and the way I interact with it.
My journey with mental health began as a passion for neuroscience in high school. What fascinated me the most was plasticity, or the “capacity for continuous alteration of the neural pathways and synapses of the living brain and nervous system in response to experience” (Merriam-Webster). As I understood it, it was the ability for one to reclaim agency over one’s mind — to practice strength and resilience.
The more people I met, the more inadequate “resilience” seemed as a goal. It seemed like a convenient erasure of people’s lived experience, like the burden was on them to be strong rather than on an imperfect system to change. Close friends were depressed, some suicidal at some point, and that depression was compounded by their childhood, their socioeconomic status, their culture, their gender expression, their body image, their romantic history. They confessed to me that they faced skepticism about the validity of their experience. Often, they were told to “get over it.”
I came to equate “resilience” with an unwillingness to consider the lived experiences of individuals, a privileged mindset that I was exposed to in my relatively conservative hometown. I saw when I came to college that many had a similar upbringing, one that was inconsistent with their sudden change in circumstance, and which made it difficult for them to come to terms with their new mental health needs. In short, they hesitated to acknowledge their own needs as valid.
What I learned from my peers is that agency is not suppressing one’s mental health needs; rather, it is being a vocal advocate for oneself and practicing self-care. Bringing mental health into the shared airspace is easier said than done, especially given the stigma surrounding it. This is why mental health needs to be treated as a public health issue rather than pigeonholed as an “individual concern.” That’s where I come in.
I myself did not internalize until last year that I had such a thing called mental health, and that I might need to take care of it. This was partially a product of a clash between my Indian culture, which doesn’t readily label or acknowledge mental health needs, and Western attitudes towards health, which include a tendency to label. It was partially recognition that society treats having mental health needs as instability, and also stereotypes women and girls as “more emotional.” It was partially a product of being afraid to admit “weakness” when my personal and career goals revolve around being strong enough to raise up other people. My mental health, and the forces that influenced the way I thought about my mental health, fell at the intersection of several spectra of lived experience — it was intersectional.
This is why advocacy is so important to me; I do not hope to speak on behalf of the “voiceless,” but rather aspire to build platforms for people to express discontent, share their experiences, and catalyze change in the systems that perpetuate mental health issues. I started as a Law Clerk and Policy Intern for the Young Minds Advocacy Project in July. It’s been amazing to be a part of the effort to empower foster youth. I hope that we can organize to demand reform and implementation of policy — through education, community-building, and solidarity across (but never forgetting) lines of privilege.
Advocacy and community-building go hand-in-hand, and by strengthening proactive and mental-health-positive discourse, we can work to minimize the harm caused by systems that isolate and silence mental health concerns. In the process, it is my hope that we can strive for something a little better than “resilience.”
Smitha Gundavajhala is YMAP’s current policy intern and law clerk. She is a third-year student majoring in Public Health and minoring in Education at UC Berkeley. Through her experience with health education, she has learned the importance of conversation in creating both public and personal ownership of health. She looks forward to utilizing that knowledge to support YMAP in its work to serve the mental health needs of youth in the community.