CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Marya Grambs, executive director of Mental Health America of Hawaii, recently received the Daniel K. Inouye Award from the Hawaii Psychological Association for "distinguished contributions to psychology and mental health."
Insider helps the mentally ill
Marya Grambs is recovering from the condition but devotes her energy to others
Marya Grambs is passionate about helping people who suffer from mental illness, because she knows personally how devastating it can be.
"I am recovering from mental illness," she says, explaining she has lived with it for many of her 61 years.
Grambs is executive director of Mental Health America of Hawaii (formerly Mental Health Association in Hawaii).
Board member Chuck Freedman said Grambs has rejuvenated the organization.
"She's an extraordinary model of leadership," he said. "I'm really impressed by her skills, which include not just knowledge, but a real insight into mental wellness.
"She has been through a lot of experiences and really made her own life well through the right kind of practice."
Grambs recently received the Daniel K. Inouye Award from the Hawaii Psychological Association for "distinguished contributions to psychology and mental health."
An effervescent, upbeat personality masks Grambs' struggles with mental illness, which she traces to her childhood.
She said her father was a brilliant man with a federal management job in Washington, D.C. He also was an abusive, severely depressed alcoholic who had guns in the house, she said.
He beat her mother and attempted suicide many times, she said, adding that she and her two younger siblings lived in terror, not knowing what to expect.
Her mother, a university professor, international scholar in human relations and author of 20 books, felt "a crazy father was better than no father at all," she said.
"I can tell you that isn't true," she said, describing her breakdown at age 17 when she left for college. She spent a year in a hospital. "It is very sobering to find yourself at age 17 with a label of mental illness and in a mental hospital."
It took a year of therapy to recover, she said, noting there was no medicine then for such disorders.
She recovered slowly and began going to college again, taking 10 years to get a bachelor's degree, she said. When she was 19, her mother was traveling, and her father became so abusive toward her brother and sister that she filed child abuse charges against him, she said.
Working on a master's degree in clinical psychology years later in California, she became involved in starting a shelter for battered women.
Grambs said she became co-director of the first shelter on the West Coast, the third in the country, and she began talking publicly about the impact of mental illness, substance abuse and domestic violence.
She married in Maryland, and she and her husband moved to California, where she earned a master's degree in clinical psychology, had a baby and divorced.
"I was always in recovery," she said. "I struggled with anxiety and depression."
When she was 30, another relationship ended, and she plunged "into an abyss again" with depression and suicidal thoughts, she said.
Medicine then available made a dramatic change in her treatment, reducing her hospitalization from a year to four months, she said.
She says she is still in recovery but her life is good, with a 25-year relationship, many accomplishments and a long list of things she wants to do to make people aware of mental illness and help them.
She cites high rates of adult and teen depression and suicide in Hawaii, pointing out mental illness is so stigmatized people would rather not get help than face the stigma.
But therapy and medicine can save lives, she emphasizes, telling others, "Here I am. I look like you. I'm a mental illness patient."
It is just a brain disease, she says, no different from any other disease or illness.
Agenda for health
Marya Grambs, new director of the Mental Health America of Hawaii, plans to tackle these issues:
» Depression among older adults and new mothers
» Suicide and post-traumatic stress syndrome among military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan
» Child and adolescent mental health
» Problems at the State Hospital for the mentally ill
To find help, call 521-1846 on Oahu, 242-6461 in Maui County and 966-8736 on the Big Island. The Web site is www.mentalhealth-hi.org.