When you meet NAMI California Executive Director Jessica Cruz, it quickly becomes clear she’s an enthusiastic champion of NAMI and a tenacious force for mental health. She speaks earnestly about her vision for NAMI California and her compassion for those affected by mental illness. “NAMI is my life,” she says. “I love my job. I’m lucky to be in this position.”
But before she interviewed with NAMI California, Jessica had never heard of NAMI – even though she grew up with a mother who battled borderline personality disorder. Looking back, she calls her introduction to NAMI serendipitous. “I cried in my interview,” she says. “I asked, ‘Why didn’t I know about this before?’ ”
Jessica was hired as Deputy Director and was soon promoted to Executive Director. Ever since, she’s been on a mission to make NAMI a household name so other individuals and families living with mental illness know immediately where to turn for answers. “When people think of mental illness, I want them to think of NAMI first,” she says. “I want NAMI to be considered the agency on mental illness.”
“When people think of mental illness, I want them to think of NAMI first. I want NAMI to be considered the agency on mental illness.”
After starting her new job, Jessica signed up for a Family-to-Family class offered by NAMI Sacramento. The class gave her a newfound understanding of her mother’s mental illness and crystallized her commitment to NAMI. “NAMI saved my life,” she says. “The Family-to-Family class gave me confidence to talk about mental illness and compassion towards my mother. It also taught me how to set boundaries.”
Under Jessica’s leadership, NAMI California has tripled its staff, tripled its budget, forged new alliances, launched innovative programs and expanded existing ones. Current priorities include shaping sound mental health policy, decriminalizing mental illness, reducing stigma, building capacity for NAMI affiliates, creating new partnerships, reaching out to diverse communities, and ensuring individuals and families living with mental illness have access to the services and support they need.
Jessica is proud of the NAMI California’s progress, giving credit to the entire organization, including the board, staff and affiliates. “You can’t win a basketball game alone — you have to have a team,” she explains, borrowing an analogy from her favorite sport. She also acknowledges the achievements of past NAMI California leaders. “I stand on the shoulders of giants. The people who came before me are my heroes. They set the groundwork for what we do.”
Jessica is encouraged to see attitudes toward mental illness starting to shift. The more people feel comfortable discussing mental health, the more likely they are to seek treatment earlier and achieve recovery. “Mental illness is a hot topic now,” she says. “People are finally talking about it. But there is still a long way to go.”
Despite the inevitable obstacles ahead, Jessica is determined to continue to advocate for those living with mental illness. “I don’t ever give up. I have a passion for change, a passion for people, a passion to make this world a better place, a passion for NAMI.”
“I don’t ever give up. I have a passion for change, a passion for people, a passion to make this world a better place, a passion for NAMI.”
Jessica lives in Sacramento with her husband, Markam, children Ella and M.J, along with their golden retriever, Rudy. An avid sports fan, she played basketball in college and still shoots hoops with her husband, a physical education teacher.
Jessica previously served as the Executive Director of Muscular Dystrophy Association and worked in key positions at the California Hospital Association and the California Broadcasters Association. She holds a Master’s of Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Services from the University of San Francisco and a BA in Mass Communications from California State University at Sacramento, where she is a guest professor. She is a graduate of the USF Leadership Institute, the USC Leadership Institute, and the Nonprofit Resource Center Executive Director Leadership Institute.
Jessica was recently appointed to the Commission on Mentally Ill Offenders and is a member of the CalSWEC Board, California WET Advisory Board, Health Education Foundation Advisory Board, Sacramento Professional Women’s Association, the Nonprofit Resource Center, Association of Fundraising Professionals, and a past Board Secretary of the Sacramento Public Relations Association.