LOS ANGELES — In addition to creating a health crisis, the pandemic triggered a mental health crisis — especially among teens and young adults.

Now the Biden administration is looking to expand access to mental health services.

Back in March, it started with President Joe Biden announcing what he called his “Unity Agenda,” aimed at tackling the mental health crisis in America. This week, first lady Dr. Jill Biden and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy hosted a conversation on youth mental health with actress Selena Gomez and other young mental health leaders from across the country. 

Diana Chao, a 23-year-old from Los Angeles, was a panelists.

She began a nonprofit, Letters to Strangers after her own diagnosis of bi-polar disorder and a psychosomatic disease that left her episodically blind at age 13.

“As a first-generation immigrant, especially growing up beneath the poverty line with parents who didn’t speak English, it’s very hard to find resources for people who look like me,” Chao explained of her own mental health journey, saying she never felt more alone. “That’s why I want Letters to Strangers to be that safe space.”

Letters to Strangers is an online community that connects others who are struggling with mental health across the world. What started as a small student club at Chao’s high school, she told Spectrum News, is now the largest Global Youth for Youth Mental Health nonprofit that is directly impacting more than 35,000 people in over 20 countries each year.

“I think it’s critical that we devote time not just now, but for a long time to come to have these tough conversations about how healing needs to happen, not just through perhaps western psychiatric ways, but also through integration of cultural nuances and other things that can help us heal in our daily lives,” Chao said.

Following the round table event, Dr. Vivek Murthy told Spectrum News this is a “top priority” for the administration.

“What we are working on doing is increasing access to care, investing more in prevention, particularly in our schools, and making sure that we start and accelerate this conversation,” Murthy said. “We’ve got to think differently about mental health, and it’s no different than physical health. No one in America should be ashamed of their struggles, or have difficulty getting help when they need it.”

Chao called the meeting with Murthy and Dr. Biden “surreal,” saying she believes the administration is going to continue advocating for disability inclusion, both mental and physical after hearing the stories from the panelists. 

“I learned so much about the strength and resilience of other people who I’ve had the absolute privilege of meeting during this forum. And I think just them being able to not just share their stories, but listen to each other, share our stories, and be there to share in that moment of resilience and healing and empathy. That’s what’s really beautiful.”

In addition to holding conversations like these, the Biden administration is launching the 9-8-8 phone number this summer for mental health and substance abuse crises. Another portion of the Unity Agenda aims to expand early childhood intervention programs, and broaden health care benefits to cover mental health care.