by Kheira Bekkadja
This past fall, I started my first semester of college with a life-long goal of working to build bridges literally by studying civil & infrastructure engineering and figuratively through de-stigmatizing mental health and youth empowerment. My passion for mental health started as a sophomore in high school, when I served as the student leader of Edison Minds Matter, which is Our Minds Matter’s chapter at Edison High School in Fairfax, VA. Running the Edison Minds Matter club introduced me to a life-long family that helped me find the light at the end of my tunnel.
At that time, as a Muslim Algerian American and recent transfer student into the public school system, I was struggling to be comfortable and confident in my own wholehearted and unapologetic self. Through sharing my story in my school’s club, I was able to connect with other students and let them know that they were not alone–and that there were resources and support available to all of us. I led the club along with students who became some of my closest friends, and I’ve been able to stay connected with the new student leaders of Edison Minds Matter. Being able to create a safe-space with these friends–where anyone can feel heard, welcomed, and loved–is one of my greatest accomplishments.
In November of 2021, the fall of my first year of college, I received a message from Laura Beth, OMM’s Program Director, to apply to the first-ever Youth Mental Health Action Forum, an event led by MTV Entertainment in coordination with the Biden-Harris administration
I vividly remember applying in November without any expectation of being selected as a Mental Health Advocate. But flash-forward to early 2022, when I heard that I was selected as one of the thirty young creators to take part in the forum at the White House. I was so excited that at first I couldn’t believe it.
It didn’t feel real until I was sitting in the White House on May 18. I sat on the stage as Dr. Jill Biden, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, and Selena Gomez, among others, spoke about the importance of mental health and mental health policy during a time that this country is facing a mental health crisis.
On that same day, the young creators chosen to attend presented their projects to an audience of media, technology professionals, government officials and nonprofit executives to help inform future creative public health campaigns related to mental health. My team presented on #HiddenHealers, a project we created together that focused on introducing, honoring, and centering culturally-grounded healing through social media, education, and personal empowerment.
Spending the month of April wrapping up my first year of college, observing the Holy month of Ramadan, and working with my team to cultivate a creative mental health campaign to inspire action didn’t allow the time to soak in the fact that I was about to join everyone and present to stakeholders and visit the White House. It was not until I was seated on that stage–staring at the audience, where not a single other mentor/stakeholder was a Muslim Hijabi female–that I realized that there is a lot of work to be done in my community. I would have loved to have seen someone who looked like me in that audience, but now I am determined to empower the young Muslim women generation to be in these spaces.
Below, I’ve compiled photos that illustrate this amazing and transformative experience:
Moments captured from the morning at the White House: a fireside conversation with Dr. Jill Biden, Surgeon Vivek Murphy, and Selena Gomez on the pertinence of the mental health crisis.
The first time meeting all the mental health activists/creators in real life!
Six weeks prior to May 16, the thirty participants broke into smaller groups based on personal interest. My group, the #HiddenHealers, was focused on introducing, honoring, and centering culturally-grounded healing through social media, education, and personal empowerment.
#HiddenHealer’s team at the Showroom, DC where the pitches took place.
Surprise drop-in by President Biden!
“This present moment used to be the unimaginable future.”
A memorable dinner hosted by Pinterest at The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution where I had the honorable opportunity to share my mental health journey as a Muslim American woman of color.
We were joined by Artist Juan Miguel Marin who drew a piece that reflected the sense of community, passion, and drive to raise awareness on the importance of mental health.
They say that life is not a sprint, but a marathon. The forum was just the beginning of it all and a special thank you to Zoom for giving us each a grant to continue working on our mental health advocacy efforts.
To anyone reading this, I hope your biggest takeaway is to trust the process and believe in yourself a little bit more. These wise words of Brene Brown have kept me going: “One day you will tell your story of how you overcame what you went through and it will be someone else’s survival guide.”
A huge thank you and shoutout to OMM for encouraging me to apply and helping to shape the person that I am today.