Trying to break the mental health stigma

KAPA‘A n Mental health practitioners and patients alike may face as one of the biggest hurdles the stigma resulting from anything labeled mental illness.

“We want people to break through the stigma of mental health,” said Katie Vercelli, Program Director for Friendship House.

“The Fun Fair was created to help do that. We want people to be able to come and visit the facility, meet some of the members, and learn more about mental health,” Vercelli said.

Friday night a steady stream of people stopped by on their way home from work to enjoy the hospitality being provided by the staff and members of Friendship House at the Fourth Annual Fun Fair.

Additionally, the appearance of a giant inflatable jumper, several tents, and the dunking booth all served to beckon passing motorists.

“It’s free,” Vercelli said. “We wanted to encourage people to come.”

Vercelli explained that Friendship House is based on a Clubhouse where members and staff work side-by-side to run the daily operations of the Clubhouse.

This concept is modeled after the International Center for Clubhouse Development, a global network creating opportunities for people living with mental illness to be respected members of society.

“We provide members with opportunities for social and employment activities,” Vercelli said. “It’s all about supporting the members. If they fail, it’s all right, they know they have someone they can fall back on. We just try, again.”

Established in 1988, Friendship House is described as a “Clubhouse Model Psychiatric Rehabilitation” program that provides mental health services to adults with serious diagnosed mental illness.

A flier that was available to fair goers said there are more than 300 Clubhouse Model programs throughout the world.

“We are a voluntary program that helps members achieve partnership, trust, teamwork, wellness, empowerment, and meaningful work,” the flier states.

One of the distinctions those at Friendship House make is calling participants “members,” not “patients,” or “clients.” Each member’s strengths and needs are emphasized rather than illnesses, symptoms, or psychiatric history.

Friendship House relies on the talents, skills, and abilities of all of its members in order to function. This was demonstrated as the first group of musicians took the stage following the presentation by Kaua‘i Mayor Bryan Baptiste.

“The fair is held in conjunction with May being Mental Health Awareness month,” Vercelli explained as Baptiste read the proclamation.

The musicians play each Thursday night as part of the Friendship House social program that runs from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The program has 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. sessions on Saturdays and holidays as well.

A couple waiting for the music to begin said, “We come to this every year.”

They had a child who benefited from the services and programs available through Friendship House, and in addition to purchasing fresh vegetables and other craft items, the couple said it was through Friendship House that their child could get a job, and today, at 31, is about to get married.

Vercelli pointed out, “Fifty-five percent of our active members are employed in the community.”

This compares with 10 percent employment elsewhere. “It works,” Vercelli said.

Friendship House is open Mondays through Saturdays from 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with the exception of Thursdays when hours are extended until 7 p.m.

Friendship House is a state of Hawai‘i Department of Health Program Operation through the Kaua‘i Community Mental Health Center.

For more information on their programs, or to arrange a free tour, call 821-4480, or e-mail at

• Dennis Fujimoto, photographer and staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 253) and


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