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Jefferson Award Winners Save Lives By Getting Students Mental Health Help

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Vic and Mary Ojakian. (CBS)

Vic and Mary Ojakian. (CBS)

(KPIX 5) – This week’s Jefferson Award winners make a formidable team: together they’ve raised four children and built successful careers. But as Kate Kelly reports, none of it prepared them for what happened nine years ago.

“I was very naive,” Vic Ojakian remembered. “Sitting out there, you know, just thinking, ‘Boy, I have great kids, and I’m a good guy…everything’s just fine.”

But that’s when Vic and his wife Mary got the worst news: their 21-year-old son Adam, a student at UC Davis, had died by suicide.

“Most people ask the question, ‘Why? Why did it happen?’” Vic Ojakian said. “They’re looking for an answer that maybe is not an answer they’re going to find.”

What the couple learned after talking with Adam’s friends and professors, was that for the first time, the young man was dealing with depression.

“He did show some signs,” Mary Ojakian recalled. “But nobody had ever been trained to recognize these.”

Not Adam, his friends, or his teachers knew enough to get him the help that was available. Suicide is the second highest cause of death for college-age students, yet 70% don’t seek treatment. The Ojakians quickly realized there was a lack of awareness. People didn’t want to talk about mental illness. And then, there were the cutbacks.

“A lot of these campuses were cutting back on things,” Vic Ojakian explained. “And the first thing they decide to cut back on is their mental health services.”

So the pair lobbied to get millions of dollars through a state initiative so that all UC, CSU, and community colleges could expand their student mental health services.

Stephanie Welch oversees the state Student Mental Health Program, which now supports kids from kindergarten to college.

“They took something that was a tragedy and really were able to save lives across the state,” Welch explained. “Vic and Mary have made talking about mental health an ok thing to do.”

In Santa Clara County, the Ojakians helped create a county-wide strategic plan for suicide prevention. And when a Palo Alto high school experienced a rash of suicides, they worked on a prevention program that’s being adopted by school districts around the state.

“Things can change,” Vic Ojakian said. “There are things we can do. We don’t have to suffer in silence.”

For the Ojakians, this work is a personal journey.

Mary Ojakian said, “I made a promise to Adam that I would do something for him every single day.”

“We’re just trying to save a life,” her husband added.

So for raising awareness and support for suicide prevention and mental illness, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Vic and Mary Ojakian.

The Ojakians shared with KPIX a website with information on recognizing the signs of suicide, knowing what to say to someone in crisis, and finding help. Click here: www.suicideispreventable.org . Stephanie Welch, mentioned above, also recommends these resources:  For reducing the stigma often associated with mental illness: www.eachmindmatters.org. For mental heath education for the 9-13 age group: www.walkinourshoes.org; for mental health education for the 14-24 age group: www.reachout.com.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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