Reducing stigmas of mental illness

KALAHEO — Kathy Sheffield has been advocating to reduce the stigma of mental illness for more than 15 years.

In early July, as she does every year, she joined hundreds of others at the nation’s capitol for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) National Convention.

NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

“I go to the convention every year to hear about all the updates in treatment and research,” Sheffield said. “I also go because I am inspired by the consumers in different stages of recovery that attend.”

Sheffield’s son was diagnosed with a mental illness 15 years ago, when she was living in California. She joined NAMI at the suggestion of her son’s psychiatrist.

“It saved my sanity,” she said. “I learned the skills to cope with the behaviors of his disease, and how to take care of myself.”

When she moved to Kauai in 2007, she noticed it was the only of the Hawaiian Islands that didn’t have a NAMI representative or services.

Four years ago, Sheffield stepped up to the plate, started fundraising, and is now heading the official Kauai affiliate under the Hawaii State Charter.

In addition to being a member and founder of NAMI Kauai, she’s also a certified instructor for the family to family 12-week class, as well as a group facilitator.

She was one of two Kauai people who joined the NAMI National Conference, along with Marc Sicignano. In total, she traveled with four representatives.

Attendees included children and adults with mental illness, family members of individuals living with mental health conditions, health care professionals and more.

“It was exiting to go to Capitol Hill with four others from Hawaii, and over 1,000 other family members,” she said. “I love the research plenaries.”

Technology was a highlight in the 2017 NAMI National Conference, because it is projected to play a very important role in early diagnosis and treatment in the future.

“It’s exciting to learn about that,” Sheffield said. “Most importantly, I got hope. Hope that my son could have a degree of functional recovery to make his life meaningful again.”

In addition to raising legislative awareness, NAMI raised some money for their cause during the convention as well.

To be exact, $1 million — a donation from Tipper Gore, former Second Lady of the United States, to support the flagship teen program, Ending the Silence.

The $1 million gift will enable NAMI affiliates throughout the country to adopt the early intervention program so that more middle school and high school students will have access to the program. Ending the Silence is designed to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and help young people get the treatment they need, according to Sheffield.

“I’ve worked for decades to help Americans with mental illness, and I am thrilled to be working with NAMI to end the silence and help our children understand they are not alone, and to learn how to ask for the help they need,” Gore said.

NAMI Ending the Silence is a 50-minute early intervention program that engages youth in a discussion about mental health. Teens learn to recognize early warning signs of mental health conditions and what to do if they or someone they know is showing these signs.

Info: NAMI.org.

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