It’s a bright and breezy winter day at the University of California at Berkeley, and Joseph Arujo is sitting, appropriately enough, in a bed of bright orange California poppy flowers on the campus that helped give birth to the original concept of the flower child.
Arujo’s fellow students glance casually at the scene as they pass, trying to repress their curiosity at the irrepressible Arujo, who is being photographed by Marcel Pardo Ariza. Despite being a freshman and one of 45,000 students on campus, Arujo’s ubiquitous presence on social media has made him something of a celebrity.
And not just any celebrity. Arujo, 19, is a new prince of mental health and positivity, a media influencer who has built TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram followings sharing a kind of spiritual California optimism with the nearly one million queer kids and allies who follow his every utterance.
“Poppies have been known to symbolize recovery and peace,” Arujo tells LGBTQ Nation. “Poppies also symbolize mental health awareness and the importance of taking care of ourselves.”
Arujo understands firsthand the importance of building a support network. According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ youth who live in an accepting community report significantly lower rates of suicide attempts than those who do not. Still, 60 percent of youth who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to receive it.
Arujo’s work came to the attention of executives at TikTok, who named him to its Diversity Collective, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, the performer’s philanthropic arm that spreads mental health awareness to youth and which named him to its advisory board.
In the decade since its founding by Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, the Born This Way Foundation has trained more than 80,000 participants in teen mental health first aid, helped launch Hack Harassment to end online abuse and bullying and published more than 870 stories on Channel Kindness, a platform to celebrate and amplify the people and organizations taking positive actions in their communities.
“Lady Gaga has been a constant source of inspiration and empowerment in my life,” says Arujo. “But as I’ve grown older, I began to realize that I wasn’t just a fan of Gaga’s art and her creative expression, but instead, it was the way she used her platform to impact the younger generation.”
Born This Way Foundation’s positive approach to social media could not have come at a better time. With Twitter aflame with anti-queer propaganda and content moderation on the wane, queer youth are turning to their own for inspiration to combat an avalanche of “Don’t Say Gay” and anti-trans and drag bills across the country.
“I want to emphasize a message of hope and support to any kids out there who feel marginalized by legislation,” says Arujo. “It’s so important to remember that you are never alone and that there are people out there who support and love you for who you are. It’s so unfortunate that these laws exist, and we must continue to fight for equality and acceptance. Surround yourself with people who uplift and celebrate you, and seek out resources and support systems that can help you navigate any challenges you may face.”
Arujo is part of the next generation of changemakers who are taking healthcare into their own hands — people like Constance Zhou, who co-founded the Weill Cornell Medicine Wellness Qlinic, and José Romero, who advocates for people like themselves living with HIV. Across the country, leaders of all ages are advocating for greater access to health resources and sharing aspects of their lives online so others see that theirs are worth living, too.
It was Arujo’s precocious ability to channel emotional well-being that visual artist and educator Marcel Pardo Ariza (they/them) captured during their day together. With Ariza’s photography exhibited everywhere, from galleries to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Ariza uses the camera lens to explore the psychology of queer people who strive to make the world a safer, more liberating place. In all their work, Ariza collaborates closely with their subjects.
Arujo was no exception, and the two spent the afternoon photographing Arujo at his favorite campus spots that illustrate how he works to maintain his positive approach on a daily basis so he can impart mental health awareness to a generation eager to learn and share.
1. Selfie at Sather Gate
“Filming content is my happy place, and being able to do it with friends makes it even more fun. What I love about UC Berkeley is that it brought me such a supportive and creative community. In this photo, you can see me with four of my friends, all of whom I met on campus. It’s moments like these that remind me of how grateful I am to have found such an amazing group of people who share my passion.”
Mental Health Tip: It’s easy to feel isolated, especially when we are all on social media constantly. Making sure to see your friends every day will help you keep a positive frame of mind because it reminds you that you are not alone; we are all in this together.
2. Picnic on the Memorial Glade
“After a long week of studying for midterms, my friends and I love to spend time together lying on the Glade. Even though we’re all busy with school and our personal lives, we make it a point to come together and spend quality time. These moments of friendship and connection are so important to me and remind me of how much I value the relationships I’ve formed on campus.”
Mental Health Tip: People don’t always realize there is an army of support for them out there, so remember to tell your friends how much you love and care for them and that they can come to you with any issues that they face jeopardizing their mental health.
3. Channeling Mark Twain
“One of the most overlooked spots in the library is the Mark Twain bench, featuring the famous American writer with his legs crossed and an open book in hand. When I sit next to him and hold the same book, I can’t help but think about my own educational experience and the incredible opportunity I have here. This bench reminds me of how hard work, drive, and perseverance pay off.”
Mental Health Tip: Whenever my emotional health feels stuck, stimulating my brain with a great book or conversation, or class always helps me get out of a rut. I love the book The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, which is about building strong mental health habits. Positives can overtake the negatives in thought habits.
4. In the stacks
“In the heart of the UC Berkeley campus lies the iconic Doe Memorial Library, a historic building that houses tens of thousands of books. As someone who loves to learn, there’s no feeling that equates to being surrounded by rows and rows of books. That’s why Doe is one of my favorite spots on campus. Whenever I step inside, I feel a sense of awe and wonder at the sheer amount of knowledge contained within the walls. For me, being in the library isn’t just about studying; it’s also about immersing myself in a whole new world of ideas. It reminds me that the pursuit of knowledge is a lifelong journey, and there’s so much more I can take in.”
Mental Health Tip: The calmness and tranquility of the library help relax and focus me from the utter chaos and sometimes cruelty of social media and the world around me. I’m inspired by the students and faculty there who put everything aside to focus on absorbing knowledge from great books.
“Life can oftentimes be really overwhelming, and with so much competitiveness among students, I find it helpful to take time for myself to reflect, breathe, and just be present in the moment. I love this location because it radiates a sense of divinity and warmth around me. After meditating, I feel recharged and ready to take on any challenges that come my way.”
Mental Health Tip: Light is an antidote to depression. It lifts your spirits and puts you in a positive mind frame. Light pours in through the window at this spot, and the quiet allows me to focus on myself and my own needs, which sometimes get lost in the clamor of the outside world.
6. The happiness advantage
“This photo was taken in one of my classrooms on campus. This space holds a special place in my heart because of the impact that one of my classes, “The Happiness Advantage,” has had on my experience. The class is part of a program that features student-led courses. Throughout this course, we explore the philosophy of happiness and how we can continue to cultivate a positive outlook on life. From practicing gratitude journaling to meditation, this class has truly been a game-changer for me and my own mental health.”
Mental Health Tip: This class is almost like therapy. We make a point of discussing what makes us happy and what is good in our lives. This is the space to be grateful for what we do have because, too often, social media and the world focus on the negative or what we don’t have.
7. Free speech
“Sproul Plaza is a place where students have long fought for social justice and equality. The rainbow flag waving by my side represents my commitment, along with my school’s commitment, to inclusivity and acceptance for all. Being here reminds me of the incredible legacy of activism and advocacy and how I’m proud to be a part of a community that cares deeply about fighting for people’s rights. It’s inspiring to see how our campus’ history of activism continues to shape our present and motivates us to keep fighting for a better future.”
Mental Health Tip: It is important to find your purpose in life, and activism allows you to lose yourself in a cause that’s bigger than you, fighting for the equality of others. Mental health is taking care of your inside life, and activism is taking care of other people on the outside. They go together.
8. Vision board, 2023
“Vision boarding is something I started doing this year, and it’s really helped me conceptualize my goals for 2023. My vision board is filled with images and affirmations that represent my aspirations for life. By visualizing outcomes (and even photoshopping images to show my desired outcomes), I find that I’m more aligned with a purpose. Creating a vision board isn’t just about wishful thinking ─ vision boarding helps you take actionable steps towards achieving what you want. Plus, it’s super fun to make a vision board that speaks to you and reflects your own interests.”
Mental Health Tip: Putting your hopes and desires into a physical manifestation really helps you look forward to something great every day. There is a reason in real life right in front of you to always keep going and always keep striving.
9. Zoom around the world
“While studying, I’m also a full-time content creator and spend much of my time on camera and in front of my screen. Here I’m in a meeting with fellow social media creators and have the chance to connect with people from all across the world.”
Mental Health Tip: We can learn from people not just near us but from places far flung from where we actually are. We can maintain connections even when physically distant from each other; it expands the insights that we can draw on for emotional well-being and strength.
10. Be kind
“Social media has led me to so many amazing opportunities, including working with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. I was welcomed into the community with open arms because my content is so aligned with mental health awareness. I’m honored to be working with such an impassioned group of students, and I hope to continue spreading the message of bravery and kindness.”
Mental Health Tip: Practicing having a positive mindset is so important to our emotional health, and happiness radiates. Even if the barista just smiles at you in line, it can improve your mental health at that moment, even in a time of darkness. So practice sharing positive energy with others.
11. Spreading kindness
“In this video series, my friends and I did intentional kind deeds around the Berkeley community in hopes of spreading some cheer among college students. An encouraging note takes two seconds to make and, as a result, could make someone’s day entirely better. Send a text to your friend and tell them how much you appreciate them. A little kindness goes a long way.”
Mental Health Tip: There’s a ripple effect of kindness. Whether it’s buying a coffee for a stranger at the cafe or giving someone a flower, it can encourage them to do the same for someone else, and then so on and so on until the world is a better place.
Photographer Marcel Pardo Ariza (b. Bogotá, Colombia) (they/them) is a trans visual artist, educator, and curator who explores the relationship between queer and trans kinship through constructed photographs, site-specific installations, and public programming.