“I went through several years of pain and suffering, and I want to be able to help people and help try to prevent that suffering from happening,” she tells PEOPLE.
Lovato, 23, will meet with legislators on behalf of the “Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health” initiative at the National Council for Behavioral Health’s Hill Day in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
The “Confident” singer says she believes this country needs “comprehensive mental health reform,” including better access to healthcare. But her main mission is to destigmatize mental illness by sharing her story.
“I think it’s important that people no longer look at mental illness as something taboo to talk about. It’s something that’s extremely common, one in five adults has a mental illness, so basically everyone is essentially connected to this problem and this epidemic,” she explains. “The problem with mental illness is people don’t look at it as a physical illness. When you think about it, the brain is actually the most complex organ in your body. We need to treat it like a physical illness and take it seriously.”
A Barney child star turned Disney darling, Lovato had to wage her battle with bipolar disorder in the spotlight. At 18, she dropped out of the Jonas Brothers‘ tour to check herself into a treatment center for eating disorders and cutting. Three months later, she opened up to PEOPLE about her headline-grabbing meltdown and courageous decision to seek help.
Today, she’s a champion for body positivity and advocate for mental health. She manages her disorder day to day with medication and a strong support system. Though she’s dedicated to using her past struggles as a platform, she says she knows when to put her wellbeing first.
“One thing that I’ve learned while dealing with this in the public eye has been that as rewarding as it is sharing my story and helping others, it’s important to take care of myself as well,” she says. “I think that’s been something that’s really resonated with me over the past year. It’s great to get outside of yourself and help others, but it’s also important that I stay dedicated to my treatment plan and make sure that I can help myself before others.”
Lovato is releasing her most empowered album yet Oct. 16. Her upbeat anthems “Cool for the Summer” and “Confident” have topped the charts, but her moving ballad “Father” will really resonate with fans familiar with her journey.
“The estranged relationship that I had with my father really affected my life growing up, and it was because he was untreated,” she says. “He inspired my charity in order to help people live a happy life. Nobody deserves to suffer. But it was a very complicated situation, and that’s why I decided to write about it. Hopefully people will be able to use that as inspiration and something that will help comfort them.”
As for her time in Washington, Lovato is encouraging people to spread the word in their communities.
“It could be as small as a hashtag or a tweet, it could be as big as joining us at Capitol Hill,” she says. “Whatever you can do to help out is what I want you to take away from this. I think it’s extremely important that we continue to raise the awareness and hopefully convince Congress to take more action.”
To learn how to help Lovato make a difference, visit BeVocalSpeakUp.com.