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NAMI up to the challenge

Kathy Sheffield leads effort on Kauai to help those with mental illness

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Kathy Sheffield

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When it comes to mental illness, there is a stigma.

People wouldn’t be mentally ill, some say, if they didn’t do drugs. They wouldn’t be in that situation if they didn’t drink.

Kathy Sheffield says not so. Far from it.

“The fact is, they were probably mentally ill and used drink and drugs to cover up the symptoms and survive,” she said.

Sheffield is the program coordinator of the National Alliance on Mental Illness on Kauai. NAMI, she says, is trying to break that stigma about mental illness.

“You still have to treat it with love and compassion and no stigma. So that’s our goal, to educate people and advocate for the person with the illness,” she said.

“It’s really become my life’s passion,” she added.

Perhaps surprisingly, that educational effort will get a boost in a movie theater.

The Waimea Film Festival is Monday, Feb. 17. One of the films is “E Haku Inoa,” which tells the story of a young Hawaiian woman, who “sets out to discover the meaning of her incredibly lengthy Hawaiian name from her estranged mother whose diagnosis as schizophrenic in the 80s caused their family separation. Christen discovers not only herself within the name, but gains a whole new perspective on the idea of sanity and how cultural differences can sometimes muddle its definition.”

Christen Hepuakoa Marquez, maker of the film, will be at the Historic Waimea Theater for a question and answer session following the 7 p.m. screening.

Sheffield said the film will definitely help people better understand mental illness and how to deal with those who have it.

“This is a great opportunity,” she said. “We want people to see this.”

NAMI is also on Kauai to help when and where it can.

It is a grassroots, volunteer organization that supports and advocates for families of the mentally ill. NAMI staff and volunteers are constantly learning about mental illness and often work with legislators on laws to support the mentally ill. Sheffield also has stepped up as an advocate for mentally ill in court cases. It has also started its first support group on Kauai, recently had about 10 graduates of a 12-week course and is looking for more people who would like to be involved.

All NAMI volunteers must have a close family member with a mental illness, “so we identify with everybody. Right away, it’s an instant bond,” Sheffield said.

Family members can’t take care of the mentally ill on their own, Sheffield said. It takes relearning how to treat someone. Yelling, nagging, wishing they were different, won’t work. Compassion is key.

That where NAMI can have a big impact.

“We teach a lot of skills how to interact with people and communicate,” she said.

Mental illness is not easy to discuss, as closeknit communities tend to have their own solutions for family issues. But the reception to NAMI in its second year on Kauai has been wonderful, Sheffield said.

“It’s being very well received. It’s just a slow, slow, process,” she said. “There is definitely a need.”

Some reports say one in four adults will have mental illness in their lifetime, and one in 10 children will suffer from it, too.  The country, in general, hasn’t put sufficient resources toward  mental illness — even closing mental institutions in the 70s.

“So we turn them out on the streets, which is why they’re homeless,” Sheffield said.

“We have to address the basic structure that’s broken,” she said. “The jails and hospitals are becoming our mental institutions. We’ve got to be real about that.”

Mentally, Sheffield said, often live in constant fear and threat. They want to get better but don’t know how.

“They’re people, too, with sick brains. They didn’t ask for it,” she said. “I sure wouldn’t want to be in any of these people’s shoes.”

Sheffield said working with the mentally ill is challenging. There can be progress, but there will always be setbacks.

“What I learned is, it’s never over. The better they are, you can expect the shoe to drop because they almost can’t handle wellness. It’s a red flag with people that have a brain disorder. There’s always relapse.”

Which is why helping those with mental illness, she said, requires patience, strength and love.

“It’s a perfect time for people to learn about NAMI and what we can teach them,” Sheffield said.

Info: www.nami.org.

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Kathy Sheffield

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