Living With Mental Illness

By Greg Payton
Wednesday - May 28, 2008
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Greg Payton

By Greg Payton
CEO, Mental Health Kokua

May is Mental Health Month and this year marks the 35th anniversary of Mental Health Kokua in Hawaii - two important occasions to talk about the fine line that exists between mental health and mental illness, and the work we do in giving people the opportunity to recover and begin again.

Mental Health Kokua began in 1973 in a small house on Sierra Drive on Oahu where a handful of dedicated volunteers spent endless hours and energy attending to people with mental illnesses who had nowhere else to turn for food and shelter because they were turned away by their families and friends. Community and government assistance was scarce, at best.

Today,Mental Health Kokua’s nationally accredited programs serve more than 1,600 people each year with 22 locations on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.

But our mission and goal has been the same over the past 35 years: the simple truth to recovery is helping people with mental illness to live and work as full and valued citizens and partners in their community. This is no different than what we all want and need in our lives!

I’m often asked, or I see it on people’s faces who are too afraid or embarrassed to say: “What are people with mental illness really like?”

Statistics show that one out of every four people is impacted by mental illness. These are people who usually are of normal intelligence with a medical condition that impairs moods or thoughts. Living with a chronic mental illness is like living with chronic diabetes or a kidney condition. The challenge, like any illness, is rebuilding your life and having people understand.

The biggest obstacle for our business in helping people with mental illness is overcoming the stigma associated with mental illness. Probably no other human condition receives as much misunderstanding and prejudice as does mental illness. It only takes one sensational headline or media news report about some terrible event to perpetuate the attitude that people with mental illness are dangerous and unpredictable. People with mental illness are no more dangerous than the general population.

As part of our education and community outreach efforts, Mental Health Kokua is sponsoring a unique and powerful photo exhibit called “Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness” by Michael Nye ( Free to the public, the exhibit opened May 15 and runs through May 31 at the Linekona Academy Art Center. “Fine Line” is an inspiring, multimedia experience of voices, portraits and deeply personal stories, where each face is an invitation to look, listen and learn - and hopefully help us all better understand the person behind the illness.

Over the 30 years I have worked in the behavioral health field, what has inspired me about people living with mental illness is their unwavering resilience. We are talking about normal people who have lost their family, their careers and their lives to this condition.

What I have seen is that against all odds, people with serious mental illness improve their lives in the face of enduring active symptoms, gross misconceptions about their conditions and unrelenting social stigma. All we have to do is provide quality, innovative care and believe to the depths of our souls that people with mental illness can realize recovery and become full and valued citizens and partners in our lives, our community and society at large.


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