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Let’s overcome fears and tackle mental illness

Recently, I taught my last class, in a series of 12, of National Alliance on Mental Illness Family to Family education class. During the wrap up, one of my students asked me why more people don’t sign up for the class. He is a local man, and said this was such fantastic knowledge for his family who is dealing with a son who suffers from a mental illness.

I had to tell him I honestly don’t know why. I have been teaching this class for four years. I am on the mayor’s committee for Equal Access, I participate with a booth at Tropic Care Kauai, I have been on Kong Radio, Ho’eke TV, and participated in the county wellness program and many health fairs across the island. I have taught mental health first aid to the Maui and Kauai police recruits.

His question really made me think.

Just why is it that our community has not welcomed this free class to help families deal with a loved one who has a mental illness? Class 11 talked about stigma, and I believe that is why there is not greater participation.

We are an island of many cultures, though we are one people. Many of our cultures believe that matters such as these should be kept in the family. There is shame still associated with having a mental illness. We need to wake up, people!

Our schools are such a mess that we can’t fully staff them with permanent teachers. Many substitute teachers have become permanent teachers. There are discipline problems in our schools at every level. Many times mental illness is mistaken for behavior problems. We have one of the highest suicide rates among students in the nation. It’s time we faced these issues head on. Mental illness knows no bounds.

We have every right to ask why this sort of prejudice still prevails and why, among many other serious illnesses, mental illness should be singled out for such a history of heartless social disregard.

It is inconceivable that Americans stricken with heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, or cancer would tolerate this degree of discrimination when seeking help for their medical problems. Why should this deplorable situation exist for people with brain disorders?

Why for instance, have we not seen breakthroughs in psychiatric disorders comparable to those which expanded our compassionate understanding of other serious physical conditions?

Few of us recall when parents of developmentally disabled children were accused of ignoring their “slow” children and thereby causing their handicap. These dreadful myths have been exposed by scientific research, public education and organized protest.

But why not mental illness? The reason is stigma. However, the stigma attached to mental illness in our culture is particularly severe and carries with it a chilling, social judgment. Society still widely believes that people with mental illness, and their families, are to blame for their condition. Science has proven time and again that this is not true.

Genetics, environment, alcohol and drugs are contributory factors for mental illness.

If you have a family member suffering from mental illness, you are not alone. Our NAMI Kauai Family will be gathering for our monthly support group from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. If you want to learn more about how to deal with issues the family encounters having a loved one with a mental illness, you are invited to participate in our support group.

It has been my goal, since achieving “affiliation” status under the NAMI Hawaii state charter, to bring this information to our island.

I trained support group facilitators so that we could have groups on the West/South/Lihue side, as well as the North Shore. Unfortunately, after a training weekend in Honolulu, our two candidates chose not to become support group facilitators. If you have interest in becoming a support group leader for Kapaa/North Shore, please contact me, as NAMI Hawaii is planning another training next year.

The island is coming together to address the alcohol and drug use issues of our Keiki. It’s time to also take a good, hard look at the lack of services and coordination of mental health services for them and their families.

For more information on NAMI, please call Kathy Sheffield at 635-3239 or email at NAMI.Kauai@yahoo.com. Kathy is available for presentations to groups, schools, interested parents, churches and first responders. Have a wonderful holiday season, and empathy for those stiff suffering from mental illness.

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Kathy Sheffield is founder and president of NAMI Kauai.

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