Celebration Raises Awareness of Mental Illness

They danced and laughed. They enjoyed inspiring performances and demonstrations. Most importantly, they raised awareness about mental illness.

Hundreds of people gathered at the Embarcadero Park Saturday for a celebration commemorating May as Mental Health Month.

“Mental health issues are no different than physical illnesses,” said Nick Macchione, director of the Health and Human Services Agency, which is spearheading Live Well, San Diego!, the County’s 10-year initiative to improve the health, safety, and wellbeing of local residents. “The integration of mental and physical well being is essential to having a good quality of life.”

This year’s theme was “Dancing through the Ages: Good Mental Health is Ageless” and event participants enjoyed laughter yoga sessions, dance performances, and a Tai Chi demonstration.

Every year, the County Health and Human Services Agency and its many mental health partners organize an event to raise awareness about mental illness and the stigma associated with it.

“The fear of stigma can keep people from getting help for themselves or a loved one,” said Alfredo Aguirre, director of County Mental Health Services. “Events like this help to change the way our community views neighbors, friends and family members who are living with mental illness.”

The event also featured a resource fair which provided the County and its partners the opportunity to let the public know there is help available to treat and overcome a mental illness.

Research has shown dance helps in the treatment of psychological and mental health problems. More than 60,000 people benefit from County-funded mental health services each year. Research indicates that as many as 80 percent of people suffering from a mental disorder can lead productive lives if they receive appropriate treatment.

Event participants also shared their stories of recovery from mental illness and talked about how stigma impacted their lives and kept them from getting help.

Hortencia Toscano spoke about how her mental illness led to her living on the streets for two and a half years.

“It was horrible. It was very hard for me…I was raped,” Hortencia told the captivated crowd. “I forgot everything that I was. I forgot that I had been an attorney. I forgot that I had family.”

She mistakenly believed she could handle her mental disorders on her own.

“I did not want to tell my family because I said: ‘I am going to do it by myself,’” she said, adding that it wasn’t until she got help that she knew exactly what mental disorders she had.

She was diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. She was placed on medication and counseling and psychiatric services. She now has a permanent place to live as part of the County’s supportive housing program.

Hortencia said she decided to share her story because she hopes it will inspire other homeless people suffering from mental illness to get help.

“I am very thankful for the services I received. They helped during crisis moments in my life,” Hortencia said. “Now I am on the road to recovery.”

People suffering from a mental illness can access services by calling the County’s 24-hour, multi-lingual Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240. Resources are also available at the It’s Up to Us website.

José A. Álvarez is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact