Gonzales High School senior Valeria Tinoco Perez was instrumental in bringing a mental health counselor to the school. (Contributed)

GONZALES — Gonzales High School senior Valeria Tinoco Perez has been awarded a Mental Health Awareness Scholarship from the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS).

The award was established to recognize students for their positive efforts in raising awareness and affecting change regarding mental health. Of more than 300 applicants, Perez was one of five students who were selected to each be awarded a $2,000 scholarship.

“Our thoughts, emotions and actions all connect to our mental wellness. It affects our decisions, behavior and relationships with other people,” said Perez, 17, about the importance of mental health. “I suffered from depression a few years ago after my uncle’s passing, but learning to cope and being aware of my own mental health awareness allowed me to get better. Because of this experience, I comprehend the importance of mental health resources that I wish I would have had.”

During her junior year at Gonzales, Perez joined the Gonzales Youth Council (GYC), a youth leadership program sponsored by the City of Gonzales with support from the Gonzales Unified School District. Every year the GYC undertakes a service-learning project to improve the community.

When Perez noticed that her school did not have a mental health counselor, she and the GYC decided to begin the Youth Mental Health Project to advocate for mental health resources. They created an anonymous, 10-question survey to understand if other students wanted more mental health resources and if they had also experienced issues with mental health stigma.

“The anonymous survey was aimed to understand the stigma around mental health, identify barriers to accessing mental health support services and compare results to the survey taken in 2020,” Perez explained.

They received 246 responses and worked with a California State University, Monterey Bay professor to present results at a school board district meeting. The most surprising statistics were that 34.6% of all students said they were “not at all likely” to seek mental health support and 40.7% said that concerns about “confidentiality and privacy” hold them back from seeking mental health support.

“This has taught me that understanding common barriers for students could allow us to provide better resources,” Perez said.

After successfully sharing the GYC’s work at a Gonzales City Council meeting, a new mental health counselor was hired at the high school. Gonzales Youth Council’s Youth Mental Health Project also won the 2022 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence.

Perez has seen a change in her fellow classmates since a mental health counselor was hired, but she believes there is much more work to do.

“After asking around about the new counselor, I realize some students do take advantage of our resources, but others are not aware of the resources at all. There is clearly a lack of knowledge about our new counselor at Gonzales High School,” she said. “The next steps are making it easier for students to connect with the counselor and share that there is confidentiality.”

In addition to the NSHSS Mental Health Awareness Scholarship, Perez received five other scholarships and will be graduating with her Spartans class on Saturday. This fall she will be attending the University of California, Davis to major in molecular and medical microbiology, with the goal of pursuing a career as a physician.

“I then plan to take two gap years and then attend medical school and complete my residency,” she said. “Once I am a practicing physician, I would love to move back to Monterey County and work at a clinic.” 

National Society of High School Scholars is an academic honor society committed to recognizing and serving the highest-achieving student scholars in more than 26,000 high schools across 170 countries. Criteria for membership is based on academic performance and is the highest among national high school honors programs.

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Ryan Cronk is the managing editor for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers general news for South Monterey County and the surrounding communities.


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