At 16 years old, Miriam realizes the importance of mental health awareness for teenagers in her area. She says, "To me, it is important that the people who need help reach out and know there are people who care and understand them." Her view is one of the key takeaways from United Way of Santa Cruz County's (Santa Cruz, CA) Jóvenes SANOS Youth Mental Health Awareness Week. Jóvenes SANOS (JS) is a youth leadership group working to change the conversation around mental wellness and increase youth access to mental health resources. The program builds mental health resilience, raises awareness of mental health issues to reduce stigma, and increases opportunities for peer-to-peer connection. The program is a partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Santa Cruz County and the Watsonville Public Library.
According to CDC 2021 reported data, 46% of Latinx youth felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks. JS youth are leading the conversation on mental wellness and addressing cultural barriers in the Latinx community regarding accessing mental health services in Watsonville. Moreover, they are changing the approach to discussing mental health with their peers. Awareness Week participant Edita says, "Mental health is just not about sitting down and talking about it but to have fun also and getting to know others, telling their stories and experiences with mental health."
One in four people are affected by a mental health illness, but 50% will not seek help, mostly due to the stigma around it. Students of color, low-income families, and socially disadvantaged youth are at higher risk of developing depression and other mental health conditions due to a lack of mental health services and stigma. The 2021 Santa Cruz County Black Health Matters Data Report shows that 38% of Black and 34% of Latinx youth experience chronic sadness or hopelessness.
JS, NAMI Santa Cruz, and the Watsonville Public Library host this event to create a space the youth to speak freely about their issues and discuss solutions. It is an opportunity that participants like Lizbeth appreciate. She says, "Having the opportunity to teach other youth about mental health was rewarding. In this community there aren't a lot of resources teaching the importance of mental health and it is really important to teach youth from a young age."
The partnership also gives the youth a voice in the program's design and decision-making. JS youth are deepening their understanding of their cultural responsiveness to implement best practices that embrace their culture while increasing positive mental health.