Justin Cheng stands behind the shadow cast by Tommy Trojan, avoiding the sun’s glare as he waits for the other members of USC’s Academic Culture Assembly.
It’s 8:15 a.m. – an ambitious time for any college student to meet on the weekend, let alone for a charity 5K in above-80-degree weather. After about 20 minutes, though, fellow Assembly members Anisha Patel, Katelyn Lee and Wendy Lieu trickle in.
Bleary-eyed but awake, the group strides to the Expo Metro line eager to join the crowd of hundreds waiting to get started at Grand Park.
Together, they’re representing the Academic Culture Assembly (ACA) at the 16th annual NAMIWalk of Los Angeles County – one of the many events across the country organized by the National Alliance on Mental Wellness (NAMI).
“This NAMI walk is all about raising awareness for mental health,” said Cheng, a junior studying international relations and global business.
NAMI is a nationwide grassroots organization dedicated to the support of those who have a mental illness. Their event on Saturday was held to bring together different groups from the LA community, each with their own motivations for promoting mental health.
For the ACA, that motivation was student well-being. The NAMI walk is their second event in a series of activities planned for October, which is Mental Health Awareness month.
As a programming assembly under USC’s student government, ACA is organizing these events – which include a movie screening and celebrity speaker - as a way to stimulate dialogue with a younger generation whose propensity for mental health issues has been the subject of much national examination and, often, horror.
At Grand Park, however, sponsored tents set up by HBO, Wells Fargo and even the television show Mr. Robot demonstrated how expansive the discussion surrounding mental health is.
LA County Department of Mental Health Director Dr. Jonathan Sherin, for example, opened the event with a speech. He promoted Senate Bill 10 – a measure waiting to be signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that would incorporate support systems and faculty for those who have a mental illness, also known as “peers,” into the state’s preexisting Medi-Cal program that provides health services for low income residents.
Brittany Weissman, the executive director of NAMI Los Angeles Counsel, said the bill is designed to give “people with mental illness the chance to become an employee and a successful employee.”
Weissman, who has worked with NAMI for the past seven years and experienced mental issues in her own family, saw Saturday’s event as a unifier.
“It’s the one day of the year where we come together to spread the awareness that recovery is possible,” she said.
As the five USC students marched along a sidewalk sectioned off for the event, they were flanked by groups often holding signs or wearing T-shirts that promoted their own personal causes.
LaTina Jackson championed the recovery as she marched and chanted along with her group of supporters, self-proclaimed as “Action Jackson.”
Jackson is the Mental Health Clinical Director at the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. Her priority is reforming the LA County jail system and its treatment of mentally ill prisoners – a hot topic that’s still unresolved after years of debate.
Jackson believes that prisoners must receive better treatment to get to a point of integration with society. As someone who has bipolar disorder, she finds that admitting your own illness is a drastic first step, she said.
“It’s a reality. It’s in my blood that I have it but it’s my responsibility to treat it,” she said. “It took me a long time to come up to that, and I work for the department of mental health!”
In other cases, marchers came to NAMI honoring those who needed treatment but never received it. Patricia Van and Nicole Liamkrajang walked alongside each other, holding a sign of their brother, John Berry, whose death in 2015 sparked citywide headlines after he was shot and killed by deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in Lakewood during a mental episode. Berry had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
The LA County Board of Supervisors paid Berry’s family a settlement in 2017 for the incident. Van and Liamkrajang, however, believe his memory serves a message for law enforcement to better understand those who have a mental illness, and de-stigmatize the discussion surrounding it.
Van said a different approach needs to be taken when training officers to deal with mental illness because shooting to kill should not be the approach.
“It’s not a crime to be mentally ill,” she said.
Other groups on Saturday’s walk carried signs provided by NAMI where participants could write their own message for “why I walk.” Others simply read, “I love someone with a mental illness.”
By the afternoon, marchers returned to Grand Park and NAMI concluded the event having only partially met its broader goals. With almost 2,000 participants, $340,415 was raised – 65% of their aim towards $525,000.
Organizers said that their real goal, however, was beyond monetization.
“It’s not just about raising the money, it’s about taking advantage of the services and connecting with people so that you know you’re not alone,” Weissman said.