MERCED COUNTY — A recent spike in national tragedies has put a focus on mental illness, but Merced County officials say they've worked to raise awareness for many years.
May is Mental Health Awareness month, and officials say it's a time to shed light on a topic that is often misunderstood.
"A lot of times, the stigma that's within the community keeps these individuals from getting support and care," said Kurt Willems, assistant director of the county Department of Mental Health. "We're here to let them know that it's OK to get these type of services."
The Department of Mental Health provides support ranging from suicide prevention to substance abuse programs to county residents.
In Merced County, a down economy and the pressures of everyday life can contribute to stress and mental illnesses, Willems said. "It's something we all struggle with to a certain degree at some point in our life," he said. "That's what awareness is about. It's to help people see that this is not an illness that should be ignored or put aside."
Proposition 63, known as the Mental Health Services Act, puts a 1 percent tax on incomes above $1 million for mental health programs. Merced County received more than $7 million from the initiative this year, Willems said.
That funding helps cover services for uninsured residents, Willems said.
It also supports several programs and awareness events, including an annual picnic at Lake Yosemite on May 10, an art contest and an "outcomes" event, where people can learn about mental health programs.
Sharon Jones, Mental Health Services Act coordinator, said it's all about removing the stigmas associated with mental illness and providing help.
"These are issues that anyone can face," Jones said. "It's not just a certain group of people that face this -- it's a community issue. It crosses all lines, colors and cultures."
Officials agree that education is the key, and the local National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter provides that through its volunteer-led programs.
Jan Morita, 69, sits on the alliance's board, and knows exactly how it feels to struggle with a mental illness.
At age 16, she experienced a deep depression and manic episodes. After multiple hospital visits, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her 50s.
Today, most people diagnosed with a mental illness are between ages 18 and 25, Willems said. That's why the National Alliance on Mental Illness tackles the issue early by offering education to high school students. The Department of Mental Health also has a clinician visit 35 school campuses in the county.
Morita said that she wants people to understand that mental illness is no different than diabetes or a heart condition.
"It's not the person's fault or something they can control," she said. "When people see that there is recovery, it gives them hope."
To learn more about the National Alliance on Mental Illness, call (209) 381-6844. To reach the Department of Mental Health, call (209) 381-6813.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.