Carla Ibarra’s heart still skips a beat when she recalls her trip to Washington D.C. this past May. The MPH candidate visited the White House as part of MTV’s first Mental Health Youth Action Forum. There, she met with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and Selena Gomez – and delivered her message one-on-one to the President of the United States.
Ibarra was part of a cohort of 30 young people selected by MTV to visit the White House and advocate for mental health action.
“The goal of the forum is actually to encourage and move society from mental health awareness – because we’ve been talking about it for years – into action through storytelling and media,” says Ibarra.
The cohort was divided into six teams, who then spent six weeks creating story-based mental health campaigns to present to officials during their visit. The effort was in connection with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and 18 other non-profits.
Ibarra’s team addressed mental health issues prevalent in HIV-positive young people who are also part of traditionally marginalized groups – such as young people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and immigrants. Their superhero-themed campaign, titled “The Broken Universe,” sought to flip the switch on feelings of shame people living with HIV often experience.
“It emphasizes how it’s actually the society that is broken,” says Ibarra, “not these young people.”
The team proposed that “superheroes” – whether they are real-life MTV Forum members or fictional characters from the Marvel universe – talk openly about their experiences to promote acceptance and form community.
The message resonates on a personal level with Ibarra. Growing up as a trans person in the Philippines, she experienced a lack of resources and cultural acceptance. “I never really had access to HRT [hormone replacement therapy] and to [talk] therapy in the Philippines. It is something that’s still taboo to this day,” says Ibarra. “But there is power in the community that helped me be where I am today. I am living, breathing proof of the kindness of the trans community.”
With the support of that community, Ibarra was able to live as an out trans woman starting before college. However, after graduation the reality of a conservative landscape upended her plans to go into diplomacy. Ibarra’s job application to work in the Foreign Affairs Department in the Philippines was denied three times due to her trans status. She calls it “a reality check of how much work had to be done.”
While initially pivoting to public health “wasn’t a choice,” Ibarra says she has found her true calling.
Driven to effect positive change, Ibarra worked to make healthcare accessible to trans people in the Philippines. In 2018 she moved to the U.S., and has since served on the health services team at the LGBT Center in Los Angeles, and held positions at Saint John’s Community Health and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. She is currently a sitting member of Transgender Advisory Council for City of LA and is set to earn her Master of Public Health from USC in May.
Ibarra credits her drive to serve her community. “That’s the very reason why I am doing the work and why I am pursuing my MPH,” she says, “to keep holding space for other trans people, and to see that other trans people who are immigrants, who speak and look like me also have a seat at the table.”
This has led her to share her life with a growing social media following and participate in a documentary by Lady Gaga. The documentary caught the attention of MTV, who approached her about the White House trip with scant details at first.
Months later, Ibarra found herself meeting one-on-one with officials like Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. When Murthy asked what he can do to help Los Angeles County, Ibarra advocated for a more robust federal response to meth use. She explains that meth “directly intersects with mental health and HIV and the community.”
Ibarra also laid out to Murthy the need for increased federal funding for data equity. “As a trans woman myself, I don’t see myself represented in numbers,” says Ibarra. “It’s ironic how we’re so hyper visible in media… but when it comes to data and statistics, all they see is the crime rates committed against trans people, or how a lot of trans people are doing sex work, or how a lot of trans people are more likely to die or to experience homelessness. I told Dr. Murthy, we’ve got to be represented across the board.” Following their conversation, Murthy’s office expressed interest in working with Ibarra.
Ibarra also met with Dr. Jill Biden and Selena Gomez, then was surprised to be granted an unexpected one-on-one with President Biden. “I had a good 10-minute conversation with the President himself,” says Ibarra. “Never in a million years did I think, as an immigrant here in the U.S., I would have the privilege to be in the presence of the President, you know?”
Ibarra shared her story with the President, and they discussed the administration’s commitment to support mental health, the just-launched 9-8-8 crisis hotline and the need for grants for state and local governments so they might fill gaps in resources.
Ibarra’s still blossoming career is a testament to the opportunities her vision, dedication and courage to be open have begun to reap. She has a clear understanding of why documentaries and White House visits matter to her mission.
“I didn’t do this because I wanted to be involved in media,” she says. “If this is a way for me to hold space for my community, I will do it. Any chance to be able to talk about my experience with the hopes of helping another person who may be going through a similar thing… I hope that helps them.”
With the White House behind her – for now – Ibarra’s next message is for parents, to ask them to love their children regardless of HIV or trans status, and to provide them with a safe space. She encourages young people to remember that there will always be people rooting for them, and to look for the light at the end of the tunnel.
Ibarra is certainly coming into the light, although even she has trouble believing it. “I haven’t even processed it to be honest.”