The licensed therapist has assisted more than 350 families with mental health counseling
■ Melissa Diaz Hernandez / Reporter
Jessica Oakes from Hemet Unified School District’s Tahquitz High School received an honor March 18 in downtown Riverside for her work in decreasing the stigma associated with mental illness.
Oakes, a licensed family and marriage therapist at Tahquitz’ Building Assets Reducing Risk (BARR) Program, received one of the 2017 Women of Distinction Awards from Assemblyman Jose Medina at the Riverside Marriott.
Prior to introducing Oakes, Riverside City Councilman Andy Melendrez stressed the importance of women in leadership positions, and how women’s participation makes our community that much stronger. Medina expanded on that sentiment, describing his experience at the Women’s March in downtown Riverside.
“As I stood on that stage and looked out at the more than 7,000 people who came out, I saw the people for as far as I could see. I saw people standing on top of the parking lot. I felt the power–the power that you as women have–the political power to bring about change.”
Oakes has increased the awareness of mental health while decreasing the stigma among students at Tahquitz. I met Oakes at the school’s second health fair that she organized this academic year. Oakes said her goal was to bring mental health awareness and assistance to the students, and the result was the health fair.
“It worked!” said Oakes, of the health fair, which was the first of its kind to be put on in the entire school district. “Hundreds of students participated. After the first fair, students asked for an event every month related to mental health.”
While this request surprised Oakes, it also drove her momentum and validated her efforts at the same time. Oakes receives encouragement and support not only from the staff, but Principal Eric Dahlstrom as well. Keynote speaker and 2013 Woman of the Year, Riverside County Superintendent Dr. Judy White stated during her speech, “Each woman sitting at these tables is passionate about what they do and what they are called here for. Each person in this room has a purpose in life.”
Ultimately, Oakes is here for the students and has seen some policies regarding the response to mental health treatment, external to Tahquitz High that she and others would like to see changed.
Since Oakes came to HUSD in August of 2016, she has increased mental health awareness and reduced the stigma of mental health at Tahquitz High School, assisting more than 350 students/families. She works in partnership with National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Victor Community Support Services (VCSS).
The partnership between Oakes and VCSS resulted in care packages in January for students who are identified through the enrollment process as homeless. Currently, approximately 10 percent of students at Tahquitz High School are identified as homeless. To be identified in the system as homeless, a student can be living with another family within that family’s household, living in a motel/hotel or in a shelter.
NAMI Mt. San Jacinto Director Brenda Scott gave a presentation on the stigma and signs of mental health to the freshman class at Tahquitz High School the Monday prior to the second fair. At the NAMI booth during the fair, students asked about resources and followed-up with Scott on questions regarding her presentation.
Oakes admitted that the first fair did not have the turn-out of the second fair, but that is to be expected with new programs. As the stigma declines and students continue to grow in their knowledge about mental health, participation is expected to continue to increase.
Another project she started was The Kindness Project. A teacher will select a student or two and do a segment on why that student or students motivate that teacher to come to work. Oakes described the response as “the students are speechless because it is positive and about empowerment.”
Her compassion doesn’t stop after she leaves the Tahquitz campus, either. Oakes also volunteers at Feeding America Riverside/San Bernardino.