Last week at the Half Moon Bay Library, two men stood in front of a packed classroom to role-play an exchange in Spanish between father and son about forgetting to clean up the kitchen.

“How did that feel,” asked the facilitator at the end.

“Como una telenovela (like a soap opera,)” one man exclaimed to much laughter. It was a lighthearted moment, but the topics covered in this six-week class can be deadly serious. The coursework covers basic material from the National Alliance for Mental Illness and is designed for parents, guardians and family members who care for youth or young adults that may be experiencing mental health symptoms. 

This course is a collaboration of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office and the San Mateo County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services. It is the first time the NAMI Basics course has been offered in Spanish on the Coastside.

San Mateo County Sheriff’s Sgt. Victor Lopez is the director of the department’s Community Alliance to Revitalize our Neighborhoods, or CARON, project. He ran another Spanish NAMI Basics in collaboration with the county in Redwood City and said the need for this information and support, especially in the Spanish-speaking communities, is great.

“The biggest thing is the stigma of mental health issues in the Latino community,” he said. “Some people refuse to acknowledge that their kids have mental health issues. We want them to know that they are not alone. The people teaching the class have experience. They can teach from the heart.”

One of those teachers is Yolanda Novelo, a family partner with the county. Novelo has personal experience parenting a teen in a mental health crisis. Her 18-year-old daughter suffered from a traumatic experience in childhood, leading to severe anxiety and depression that intensified as she hit middle school. 

Novelo spent years bouncing between the public school system and the medical system at Kaiser, fighting to get her daughter what she needed while juggling work, two other children, and a husband who wasn’t always on the same page. Her daughter was eventually placed in a therapeutic day school in Pacifica, but when her mental health challenges became even more extreme, she was moved to a Level 14 residential program where she stayed for two years. Novelo’s entire family went through therapy to learn how to change their behaviors to be ready to welcome her daughter back home.

Novelo said that lack of resources, even more than stigma, is the greatest problem in addressing mental health issues. If caregivers don’t recognize the mental health aspect of many behavior problems and get kids the resources they need and deserve, then those kids will often lean on maladaptive behaviors like drugs and alcohol.

“Most of these children that don’t have the right diagnosis, they end up doing crazy things like stealing, driving while intoxicated,” she said. “They end up going to jail instead of getting the right services.”

At the NAMI Basics class, parents get experienced, personal support from instructors like Novelo and also build a safe, supportive community with other local parents who are struggling with their teens and adolescents.

On the night of May 15, the participants reviewed the agreements they’d made in the first class, including respect, voluntary participation, the promise not to judge, honesty and confidentiality. Participants felt safe to open up about sensitive topics, including bullying, teen drug use and therapy. There are 26 participants in the class and attendance is high. This first class will graduate on May 29. 

“I’m so surprised about how many people are coming to our class and impressed about how we are changing the perception of mental health,” said Novelo. “I want them to feel like it’s OK, you guys are not alone.”

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