Riverside sets aside stigma

Posted: June 2, 2015 | Written by: Josiah Patterson
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Organizations share info, resources and free items with attendees at the mental Health Fair in Riverside on May 21. Photo taken by John Villanueva of Viewpoints.

In light of Mental Health Month, the Riverside County Department of Mental Health hosted a mental health fair on May 21 at Fairmount Park in Riverside.

The fair was free and open to the public and consisted of nearly 95 vendors from all over Riverside County, which included information booths, health screenings, children’s activities, free food, music and entertainment.

The annual fair is intended to celebrate California’s mental health movement, “Each Mind Matters.”

Proposition 63, also known as the Mental Health Services Act, which passed on the November 2, 2004 California ballot, is a 1 percent tax on incomes over $1 million that goes to MHSA funds which are distributed to counties. Putting on the fair is one of the ways Riverside County spends these funds, Riverside County Senior Peer Support for Communications Angi Abbott said.

“May is Mental Health Month nationwide, and Riverside County has done a proclamation stating that we are going to celebrate this and bring awareness,” Abbot said. “Awareness for mental health, awareness to reduce stigma.”

Reducing stigma for those with mental illness is important to Abbott, who has a diagnosis herself.

“I’m hired because I have recovered from that diagnosis, and what I get to do is I get to be the hope for those that are coming in that are still really sick,” Abbott said. “I was homeless 10 years ago, so they get to see someone like me who’s in a position working for a county entity in recovery.”

Organizations were eager to share therapy, information and resources as attendees passed their booths.

One of them was Pets Aiding in Recovery, an animal therapy group.

Among the volunteers was Joyce Banks with her miniature horse JJ.

“I’ve been doing therapy with miniature horses for 3 years,” Banks said. “I actually have two of them. This is my second one. So he’s been doing it for about 18 months. He’s 3 years old. My other one is 4 years old, and he’s been doing it three years.”

Banks provides animal therapy through a national organization called Pet Partners.

She is self-funded and explains that pet therapy is a costly endeavor. But to her, the benefits of warming peoples’ hearts greatly outweigh the costs.

“Being able to make people happy makes you happy, and it’s priceless,” Banks said.

Another feature at the fair was an information booth provided by the Teen Suicide Awareness and Prevention program.

Besides spreading awareness at events like the fair, the program works with over 50 schools in Riverside County to train groups such as Associated Student Body to take the lead on campuses and aid with suicide prevention.

“They’re like the go-to people after that,” said Jessica Cuevas, health education assistant for the County of Riverside Department of Public Health. “Throughout the year, we have them do awareness campaigns on campus to kind of reduce the stigma so students ask for help, so they’re not scared or whatever. That’s what we do. That’s how we raise awareness, through the students.”

Additionally, the program gives presentations to parents and training to teachers to show them how to properly handle a minor with suicidal thoughts.

The program is starting to reach out to elementary-aged children, particularly in fourth and fifth grade, as children this young are also committing suicide.

“It’s not a high rate like high school because, as we all know, the older you get, the more problems you have, and that’s how the rates go up,” said Connie Marmolejo, health services assistant for the County of Riverside Department of Public Health. “But (suicide among elementary aged children) are starting to (rise)  because of bullying. That’s the main issue, bullying.”

The program offers a solution on how to handle bullying.

“You don’t have to talk to a bully or put yourself in that situation, but go talk to the teacher,” Cuevas said.

Like many other booths at the event, the TSAP program offered information cards, fliers and free items.

One in four adults has a mental health challenge, Abbott said.

“Chances are you know somebody. It’s just that simple,” Abbott said.

She hopes to help crush the stereotypes hinged upon people with mental illness.

“If we don’t define people by their illness, and we define them by their name … That’s the way we reduce stigma is by getting rid of the labels and introducing the person,” Abbott said.