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  1. Gunny, the therapy dog, enjoys the attention received from Sierra Vista High School students.
  2. Sierra Vista High School students learn how Gunny, the therapy dog, comforts members and their families at the Baldwin Park Medical Center.
  3. Dr. Susan Coats introduces Elaine Jeche and her therapy dog, Gunny, to the Sierra Vista High School students.
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Student-Led Club Helps Raise Mental Health Awareness

Sierra Vista High School in Baldwin Park, California is home to East San Gabriel Valley’s first student-led National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on Campus Club. More than 150 members focus on a range of issues from depression to suicide prevention. In addition, they are making strides to help battle the stigma of mental illness that can exist in schools and throughout the communities.

In collaboration with Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Outreach Program, an academic and support service for primarily Latino and low-income youths in the San Gabriel Valley, the club empowers students to learn and help raise awareness of mental health, learn coping strategies, and life skills, and provide resources to students who need help.

“In the club, we talk about how to be mentally well,” said Dr. Susan Coats, psychologist, Baldwin Park School District. “Kids are stressed out and this club is providing coping strategies on how to deal with life.”

This program piloted during the 2016-17 school year, in partnership with NAMI East San Gabriel Valley, NAMI CA, and the California Department of Education, along with Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Outreach Program.

“Mental health is something everyone should learn about,” said Marisol Rodriguez, student and vice president, Sierra Vista NAMI on Campus Club. “People should take care of their mental health, just as they would if they had a fever.”

The club operates under the guidance of Dr. Coats, two Kaiser Permanente Educational Outreach Program Master of Social Work interns, Kaiser Permanente Educational Outreach Program’s Diana Rivera-Beltran, manager, and Ruth Padilla, social worker; and Sierra Vista teachers Melanie Graf, Mariana Tapia, and Ariane Ochoa.

“Kaiser Permanente Educational Outreach Program and Baldwin Park Medical Center have responded to the call to action to improve health in the communities we serve by leveraging our resources in support of NAMI on High School Campus programs,” Rivera-Beltran said. 

“Our partnership with local schools and the NAMI on Campus organization has yielded such positive results. We see students empowered to make changes in their school culture by becoming more accepting of others, not afraid to seek services when in need, and practicing the skills to be life-long health advocates.”

The club has boosted their skills with two training sessions at Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Park Medical Center where NAMI CA officials taught students how to reduce the stigma related to mental illness. They also learned how to identify and understand mental illness, and where to look for mental health resources. The NAMI training has served as one of the largest in Southern California. Both sessions have benefited more than 100 students from 17 high schools, including Sierra Vista and Baldwin Park.

During National Depression Awareness Month in October, the club hosted an event featuring Elaine Jeche, a therapy dog handler at Kaiser Permanente Baldwin Park Medical Center, and “Gunny,” a therapy dog certified by Therapy Dogs International.

“I think it’s important for people, especially youths, to understand what therapy dogs do,” Jeche said.

Jeche and “Gunny” visit the Baldwin Park Medical Center every Wednesday and Friday bringing comfort to members, physicians and staff in the emergency department, patients who are undergoing chemotherapy, and family members waiting for their loved ones in the waiting rooms.

While Jeche enjoys visiting the NAMI on Campus club at Sierra Vista, she believes sharing Gunny with the students opens them up to the therapeutic benefits of dogs.

“The club has been amazing, very powerful, and very healing,” Dr. Coats said. “Some of the club members want to go into the mental health profession because they either have a history of mental health illness or family members affected by mental health.”

The year-round club hosts on and off-campus mental health-related events and activities. Past events have included a “Directing Change” video competition where students created public service announcements on suicide prevention and reducing the mental health stigma; mental health discussions at the City of Baldwin Park’s Concerts at the Park; and an ongoing series of student-parent mental health events, which featured a Mental Health Matters Month series on suicide prevention in May 2017.