San Diego, California - She has helped transform the mental health field in the San Diego region. This weekend, a stadium crowd will see Piedad Garcia recognized for it.

Garcia, an assistant deputy director for the County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), Behavioral Health Services (BHS) and two others will be honored during Mental Health Social Workers Day at Petco Park. The awards will be presented Saturday at a special ceremony before the Padres take on the San Francisco Giants at 5:40 p.m. Purchase tickets for the game.

“I was very pleasantly surprised to be receiving this award,” said Garcia, who, together with the other awardees, will also be called onto the field and recognized before the game. “We are doing incredible work which has been recognized at the local and national level. This recognition is another sign that we’re doing something right.”

The second Mental Health Social Workers Day at Petco Park is highlighting social work in the mental health arena, especially clinicians whose work has focused on changing the stigma associated with mental illness and who have advocated for improved mental health care in San Diego.

Garcia has been working in the mental health field for 32 years, 28 of those with HHSA, where she is currently the director of Adult and Older Adult Behavioral Health Services and oversees a budget of over $180 million and the implementation of more than 130 contracts which offer treatment for persons with mental health disorders and substance abuse.

In her more than three decades in the field, Dr. Garcia has been directly involved in the transformation of the local mental health system.

How has it changed? In a lot of ways.

The education and teaching of mental health professionals has evolved and changed. Attitudes toward mental illness have shifted. The research has greatly improved.  We know more about mental illness and how to treat and manage it.

There is less overmedication with more emphasis on rehabilitation and recovery treatment approaches. When medications are used, patients are treated with the latest variety available. They are no longer considered “career patients” or thought not to be productive members of society. Today, patients are active participants in their treatment and rehabilitation. They are becoming self-sufficient and, with the right treatment and rehabilitation, have regained their ability to take charge of their own lives.

“The mental health field has changed tremendously. We are better educated about mental illnesses. We now have a system that is modern and uses the best practices in the field,” said Garcia, a graduate of San Diego State University (master’s degree in psychiatric social work) and the University of San Diego (Doctor in Education and Leadership) and a licensed clinical social worker. “We’re using an entirely different approach. We are now focused on the person as a whole and are using a more humane and holistic approach. Clients are, and feel, empowered to manage their illness. They are more in control of their lives.”

The stigma associated with having a mental illness has also shifted. People are talking much more openly about their mental health conditions and illnesses and seeking treatment.

“We’ve raised the consciousness and knowledge of people so they can identify symptoms and behaviors which can indicate there is a mental health problem and get help,” said Garcia.

County campaigns like It’s Up to Us, Housing Matters and the Fotonovela, she said, have helped educate the community about mental illness and reduce its negative associations.

“We have great programs that are focused on the Latino, African-American and Asian communities, as well as the homeless population with mental illness. Our community treatment programs are exemplary. We have cutting-edge programs for children and youth,” said Garcia, who credited her “great bosses” with giving her the freedom to look beyond the traditional and search for more innovative programs and services. “San Diego has one of the best mental health systems of care in California.”

But the work is not done.

The existing mental health system, Garcia said, must be supported and continued with a vision towards the future. The fight against the stigma of mental illness must also go on.

What she would like to see and is working towards is a better integration of primary care, mental health and substance abuse services and the development of medications with less side effects and which work better at controlling the symptoms of mental illness. She is also hopeful the future will bring even better research in unravelling the causes of mental disorders.

Mental Health Social Workers Day at Petco Park is annual event organized by the Padres, the National Association of Social Workers, California State University San Marcos, Point Loma Nazarene University, San Diego State University and the University of Southern California-San Diego Academic Center.