Those words express the very real stigma that permeates our culture. To really understand why stigma is dangerous for our community, we must look at the definition. One dictionary defines it as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”
Let that sink in for a moment. The truth is that mental illness does carry a mark, and those who feel marked by mental illness of any kind often experience deep shame. Mental illness is more common than diabetes, and yet our society has hidden the topic behind a closed door, so to speak. So why, when one in five people will have some sort of mental illness in their lifetime, are we not kicking the door open? Well, the stigma around mental illness is mostly due to a lack of understanding and education. Here on Kaua‘i our community is close-knit, and this affords us an incredible opportunity to inform, support and make changes together. There are groups and resources on-island dedicated to this work, and after speaking with some passionate mental-health advocates, I realize it’s time to put our door-kicking shoes on.
Kaua‘i Mental Health Advocates
I had a very insightful interview with Franci Davila, co-founder of Kaua‘i Mental Health Advocates. Before the pandemic, you may remember seeing fliers for the mental-health-benefit shows they organized, which featured local artists, performers and speakers to raise funds and awareness. They organized largely due to the spike in suicides on Kaua‘i, and made it their mission “to de-stigmatize the negative concepts of mental illness.” Before COVID rocked the island, gathering together was an impactful way to get the community talking about mental health. “As community organizers, things have not slowed down, they haven’t stopped,” says Davila. “There has simply been a learning curve for practitioners.” The live events have transitioned into virtual workshops during periods of mandated distancing which, in actuality, makes them even more accessible to the community. The needs of the community have intensified during the pandemic, and meeting those needs calls for new channels. I asked her what needs she has been presented with over the last few months. “Some people need concrete basics like food shelter, safety. Others need help with addiction, healthy relationships, previous traumas, etc.” Over the last seven months, fear and anxiety are obviously more present. Davila kept the tone positive, though, as she began listing resources available for those who need support.
The most powerful tool we have is prevention. By prevention, I mean using the resources we have to prevent a crisis. It is staggering that 9% of Kaua‘i’s youth attempted suicide last year. Luckily, we have local organizations that are laser-focused on prevention. The Kaua‘i Resilience Project, for example, leads workshops and discussions on youth mental health and offers information for adults to protect and support them. KMHA and the Kaua‘i Resilience Project have teamed up to create the “Youth Mental Health First Aid” workshop. These workshops are designed to help adults understand the challenges that young people are facing here, as well as provide research-driven solutions to these challenges. I checked out their website atkeikitocareer.com/call-to-action/Kauai-resilience and was impressed with the collective efforts. KMHA also hosts a monthly series called “Community Conversations” via Zoom. The last conversation was about anxiety, and they are working hard on the next in the series which pertains to the holidays and the mental-health challenges that are ever-present during this time of idealized cheer. You can find details about upcoming events organized by KMHA and the Kaua‘i Resilience Project on the Instagram page for k.mentalhealth.a. The value of these informative events and presentations can’t be overstated, but Davila told me that simply opening the conversation among ourselves is key. And once the conversation is open? “The conversation doesn’t end,” says Davila. “The follow-up after someone discloses that they are struggling is crucial. The community needs to keep showing up for each other, formally and informally.” My friend Leah Hatcher has been engrossed in research for a psychological-disorders class offered as part of her bachelor’s program, and she heartily agreed. I was shocked to learn from her that the average time that people wait before seeking help for a mental disorder is 10 years. Stigma is the real culprit here, so simply creating a supportive environment where we can all talk about mental health is arguably the most impactful thing we can do. But just being willing to support each other is not enough. We need real tools to have the right conversations and know what to say and when. Hatcher informed me of a free presentation via Zoom that will discuss stigma and how to remove it from our interactions with each other. The presentation ”Make it Okay,” on Nov. 9, will cover ways to respond to someone who discloses mental illness using interactive tools and exercises. You can join the presentation by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, and for more information on stigma check out makeitok.org.
Intervention and postvention
Among the resources available for intervention are crisis hotlines such as the Hawai‘i Suicide Prevention line at 1-800-753-6879. There is even a text line available at 741741. KMHA is also offering a free, two-day workshop for adults called ASSIST: Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training. It will take place on Nov. 12 and 13, and seats are limited. See the flyer for registration info. Postvention, a new term for me, was explained by Davila as the extra support needed due to the invasive thoughts that are often present for a period after a crisis. This support can take the form of medical treatment, lifestyle practices, counseling, follow-up from friends and family, etc. The words “follow up” were emphasized again as being “crucial to saving more lives.”
“I can do this on my own”
That was Davila’s response when I asked “what is one mental-health stereotype you wish you could change immediately?” She continued, “we need a more-universal view of mental health, more of a community approach rather than the individual. We have to utilize the network.” What can you do? Talk about it. Talk about your personal challenges, open the conversation for others to do so, use the free educational tools, share what you learn, and repeat. You can also get involved with these local organizations, as volunteers are always needed. Let’s normalize real talk around mental health. Let’s make it OK to have challenges. Let’s make it OK to ask for help, because no one needs to “do this on their own.” Our community is ready to talk.