Content Warning: Points of Light is proud to share the following uplifting and inspiring story. However, we acknowledge that a small portion mentions suicide and may be difficult for some readers. We encourage you to please care for your own well-being above all.
Sriya Sai Pushpa Datla is just 16 years old. She’s an outgoing junior in high school and a third-degree black belt in taekwondo – she started at age six – but she’s a bit hesitant to get her driver’s license just yet. And that’s ok. Because among other things, Sriya is also a mental health activist and journalist who wants people to know it’s ok to feel things. As a first generation American – and later, a big sister – she flew from India with her mom at just three months old, and she is particularly focused on destigmatizing mental health issues within the Asian American community.
Among her extensive list of accomplishments are the founder and president of her Active Minds chapter and the youngest board member of her neighborhood council. She established her high school’s first-ever Wellness Center while writing articles for the LA Times High School Insider and participating in Model UN and the debate team. With her resilience, strong work ethic and ambition, Sriya is a true point of light in her community and beyond.
What inspires you to volunteer? And why is talking about mental health important to you?
I didn’t even know what mental health was until eighth grade. In the midst of the pandemic, I got involved because my best friend was experiencing suicidal ideation. She was faced with extreme stress and isolation; school was entirely online. After hours of calls, I was able to help her reach out to a therapist who understood her needs. Now she’s doing better. That’s what inspires me to volunteer: the feeling after you volunteer and someone comes up and says thank you. It warms my heart to know that I truly made an impact on someone else’s life, however small.
Describe your volunteerism with Active Minds and beyond.
There had never been a mental health club at my school, so in 2020, I started a chapter of Active Minds, a national nonprofit. I got my school’s counselors, nurse and psychiatrist to give talks, and the club expanded from three of my friends to almost 50 people on one call. I’ve created programs like Gratitude Card Writing, mental health discussions, kindness talks and our school’s first ever Wellness Center.
We host 45-minute club meetings every Friday, and I start each one with the goal to genuinely help someone out. In 2022, we won the national Active Minds award for high school mental health advocacy. Additionally, I was selected to be a National Student Ambassador and write for their national blog.
I also started my own wellness column for the LA Times High School Insider community. Last summer, I was one of 11 interns selected to create an enterprise story for them about Asian American mental health and present it in a showcase with accredited LA Times journalists. On their student advisory board, I lead mental health discussions and initiatives.
As the Youth Committee Chair on the West Hills Neighborhood Council for the last two years, I proposed a Kindergarten through fifth grade mental health initiative and am working with city officials and neighboring councils to gather resources to implement it.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
The feeling that I get is phenomenal. It’s not something that you can find with paid work. I work at Kumon, a learning center, but my satisfaction comes with helping other people with mental health. There’s nothing in this world that could compare to that feeling for me.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I’ve learned how to be empathetic. It’s so important to let other people know that you truly care and you genuinely want to help them. Just that feeling itself can make them feel so much better. For example, I also volunteer for the American Cancer Society; I’m part of my school’s Relay for Life committee. I was talking to a patient who was battling cancer. If we tell them that we truly care about helping them get better – especially if that patient has no one else – we inspire hope.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
I got accepted into the Stanford Summer Institute Medical Research Program, so I’m going to be working on a medical innovation that helps address a clinical need.
I’m also participating in Active Minds’ Mental Health Advocacy Academy, focusing on public policy and legislation and developing my own plan as part of the Academy. I’ll be meeting world renowned mental health experts. And I’ll continue my journalism work with the LA Times. On top of all of that, I have to start my college apps and study for my SAT.
How can people contribute to the mental health of the people around them?
You don’t have to be a part of a big movement. When I started, I was just trying to help my friend. Letting others know that you truly care about them is such an important part of life.
It doesn’t even have to be for other people. In order to be kind to others, you have to be kind to yourself. You have to understand what it means to make mistakes and that it takes time to get over them. That’s how you grow as a person.
Why is it important for others to get involved in causes they care about?
If you have something you’re genuinely passionate about — it can be something small —I t’s important to reach out. Reach out to friends who also share that support for a certain cause and volunteer with them. You can really make a difference.
Do you have any ideas about what you’d like your future career to look like?
I really love science. I was part of University of California, Santa Barbara’s Summer Research Academies where we researched asthma and how it affects our central nervous system. I’m excited my research will be published soon.
There’s often this idea that the humanities and STEM don’t go together. That’s not true. I want to become a physician, because it combines all of my passions. I see myself working with kids, telling patients about mental health while treating them physically. But I also I want to work for the United Nations or volunteer with Doctors Without Borders. I come from India, so I want to go back and get permission to set up my camp in the middle of the road and treat patients for free.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
Hard work can sometimes lead to more success than just intelligence. When there’s a big exam the next day, some people will rely on their intelligence. Other people who work hard might study for several nights and be better off.
And age isn’t a factor of how much hard work you can put in. The age limit to be considered for my neighborhood council is 19. I was 14 when I started calling them every week for a year until they let me go through an interview process. I’m the youngest person in history on that board. Never let other people limit what you can do. If you truly set your mind to something, even if it doesn’t work out, it’s okay. We’re all human beings. You don’t have to be happy all the time. And mental health can play a big role in the ability to keep on going.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME to 741741 to talk to a trained crisis counselor through Crisis Text Line. Both resources are anonymous, free and available 24/7.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Sriya Sai Pushpa? Find local volunteer opportunities.