AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s been six years since Austin resident Marcia Oakes’ son, Jake, died by suicide in 2015. Since his passing, she’s continued her mission on raising awareness on mental health struggles, one step at a time.

Each year, National Alliance on Mental Illness of Central Texas hosts NAMIWalks, an event aimed at raising awareness on the prevalence of mental health struggles in children, teenagers and adults alike. This year’s NAMIWalks marked the sixth for Team Jake, created by the Oakes family to carry his memory forward.

Collectively, NAMI Central Texas raised more than $276,000 and garnered more than 600 participants. Team Jake raised nearly double its fundraising goal, with more than $7,600 collected against a $4,000 goal.

Oakes had been familiar with NAMI Central Texas during her son’s time in treatment. When her sister attended a NAMIWalk in Fort Worth, she was moved by the outpouring of support event attendees showed families who had felt the impact of mental health struggles firsthand.

“When she heard about it, she called me up and she said, ‘Jake deserves a standing ovation every day. We need to do something,’” Oakes recollected. “And we said, ‘You’re right, we need to do something.’

Expanding mental health resources

Since its initial team walk six years ago, Team Jake has raised more than $40,000 for NAMI Central Texas. The funding assists NAMI Central Texas’s free support programs and mental health resources offered to schools, workplaces and families, including:

  • Families Together: a free, three-week online class outlining diagnosis, treatment and crisis response for anyone with a loved one facing mental health struggles
  • Family-to-Family: a free, eight-week online class outlining treatment options and crisis management response for adults living with mental health conditions
  • Family Support Group: free online group resources for family members, friends and partners of someone living with mental health conditions
  • Basics: a free, six-week online class outlining mental health struggles in children for parents and caregivers
  • Homefront: a free, six-week online class for families, friends and loved ones of a former armed service member with mental health conditions

A growing need

And the needs for expanded mental health resources are there, said Rebecca Farrell, NAMI Central Texas program coordinator. Nearly 14% of adolescents ages 12 to 17 have reportedly suffered at least one major depressive episode within the past year, according to 2021 data by Mental Health America.

Texas ranks 15th nationally for adolescents suffering from MDEs, with 13.2% of youths reporting at least one episode during the past year.

Between 2020 and 2021, the number of teenagers experiencing MDEs grew by more than 206,000 nationally — with some of that growth likely due to the coronavirus pandemic, Farrell said.

However, while the pandemic has exacerbated many people’s struggles, she said COVID-19 has also elevated public conversations surrounding mental health conditions.

Collectively, NAMI Central Texas raised more than $276,000 and garnered more than 600 participants. Team Jake raised nearly double its fundraising goal, with more than $7,600 collected against a $4,000 goal. (KXAN/Kelsey Thompson)

“Being able to come together as a community, to say, ‘Hey, this is what the face or faces of mental health looks like, and we can be very successful,’ and we need advocates and allies to be able to say, ‘You’re not alone, and there’s nothing wrong with you,’” she said. “And together, if we can talk about it, we can help each other out, and then help each other be able to live the lives that we want to live.”

As a crowd gathered for Team Jake’s NAMIWalk this weekend, Oakes looked around at Jake’s lasting legacy, gathered in south Austin. The memory of who he was — a quiet, funny kid who loved science fiction and deeply cared for his friends and family — remains in those who knew and loved him.

“He was just a kind, compassionate and loving person who actively wanted to get better,” she said. “We just, we treasure every minute of the almost 18 years that we had with him.”