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I am ready, choose me: A Journey to the White House and Beyond, Dayna Altman

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General, Selena Gomez, Dayna Altman and First Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden
US Surgeon General, Selena Gomez, Dayna Altman and US First Lady Dr Jill Biden

Dayna has a Human Services, BA with a minor in Psychology, 2015, and a Master of Public Health, 2018

My journey to the White House was one full of detours—both literally and figuratively as on the day I spoke on stage in the East Wing of the White House alongside the First Lady, the Surgeon General, and Selena Gomez, I was almost late! My Uber driver had to take all sorts of back roads due to construction and an accident in downtown DC, stressful in the moment but looking back, this is a perfect symbol for my journey as a mental health entrepreneur, author, and advocate. I have been creating and performing, in everything from theater troupes to shows in my basement since I was 8 years old. Coordinating with my friend’s parents, raising money, and creating everything from a props list to a “run of show”—I have always loved being a creative leader. I had no idea that 21 years later my leadership would be recognized at the White House! 

Along the way, my interests and work have evolved based on what inspires and motivates me. When I first entered college, every anxious, depressed, and eating disordered thought I had kept so desperately beneath the surface came pouring out of me. This quickly turned into the need to access therapy and medication, experiences of crisis hospitalizations and time off from college; I felt damaged, broken, and alone during most of this process. The fact that no one seemed to be talking about mental health never sat right with me. I wanted to lead by example; I wanted to help others feel less alone, this became my guiding principle. 

Over the years this has taken shape in so many ways: hosting community events, creating my own organizations, and making a documentary, all in the name of leaving the world a better place than I found it by normalizing and speaking openly about my mental health journey, a road that has had several detours already and one that I am sure that will continue to have twists and turns; as healing isn’t a line. 

I have searched for ways to expand this idealogy on a larger scale and platform, specifically with my organization Bake it Till You Make it, LLC. The community I have built both in real life and online has been an incredibly supportive one. Which fuels me, pushing me to question ways to expand my audience by getting this message to an even larger group of people. In the name of this mission, over the last five years, I have applied for every opportunity I came across.  And almost every opportunity was a “no” – a lot of the feedback I got during this process was that Bake it Till You Make it doesn’t fit into a “box” or category and with all of the rejection it became a battle to continue to put myself out there, never stopping and staying true to what was in my heart.

So on a random Thursday in November, when I was scrolling as we often do, I saw an Instagram ad for the Youth Mental Health Action forum to take place at the White House, I immediately filled out the application. Given that historically I would never hear back from applying to such high-profile opportunities I put it out of my mind and knew just putting myself out there in the application process was a good experience. This changed at the beginning of February 2022 when I was sitting in a meeting for my day job and I got an email congratulating me for being a semifinalist for the forum. I filled out another application at this stage and for weeks, I would refresh my email waiting for an answer until almost March, I got an acceptance email. 

Dayna Altman arrives at The White House
Dayna Altman at the White House

And so it began! From then on, the cohort of young leaders (myself among 29 other folks) began to meet weekly in preparation for the Youth Mental Health Action Forum. This forum, hosted by MTV and the Biden-Harris administration, brought together this group of leaders but eighteen nonprofit organizations and several industry partners. Each week we would learn and workshop ideas for mental health digital campaigns we would be presenting in May at the White House. In addition to the small leadership groups, each group had mentors, made up of individuals from the mental health nonprofit partners and the Social Impact Team at MTV. In addition to the group work, I had the opportunity to participate in the morning programming at the White House. And as much as we prepared as a cohort and I prepared individually, setting foot in the White House, sitting on stage, and holding a microphone to share my story – it did not feel real. Despite being incredibly nervous and experiencing the most severe dry mouth, when I started sharing about Bake it Till You Make it, I felt like I truly stepped into my light. 

It is now almost a month later from that day at the White House and I am so excited about what is next. At the very end of the forum, Zoom gave every young leader $5,000 to continue their work, so that is certainly expanding my own means of what I thought possible in terms of the future. I have gained so much excitement and momentum from this experience I have outlined my next three priorities: a video series, the launch of my next book (both in print and audio form), and the further commitment to provide community mental health events. 

In addition to my work with Bake it Till You Make it, I work at the national non-profit, City Year (that day job I mentioned). One of my favorite things about City Year is their commitment to idealism in changing the world, so much there is a whole list of phrases and mantras that support this work, and one really stuck with me through this experience: I am ready, choose me. And since that moment, I have continued to hold on to and embody this phrase in the work I am doing now! 

D. Altman at the White House
Dayna Altman at the White House

Every part of my younger self and if I am being honest, part of my present self, wants to press “the fast forward” button to the next moment. It has been really challenging to come back to life as I knew it before the forum and it feels scary to let go and let in. However, I have learned that the “fast forward” button leaves out the growth. There were so many moments in the process of preparing for the forum that I was just ready for it to happen but looking back, it was not just the day in the White House that gave me an authentic voice to speak, it was every other moment of preparation through this experience and outside this experience. Every event that I hosted regardless of attendance, ideas that didn’t really click… all of that made the moment on stage at the White House and I hope I can apply all I have learned to what is next. 

Something is coming down this road, I am going to let it happen. I am ready, choose me. 

Dayna sharing her story with the other panelist from the Mental Health Youth Action Forum hosted by The White House and MTV.

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