Thursday, April 19, 2001

Celebrating victory
over clinical

Ka'anoi Ka'apana wins national
honors for her fight against
an insidious condition

By Helen Altonn

REFLECTING on her adolescence, Ka'anoi Ka'apana said, "My life really sucked."

So much so that at age 23 she tried to kill herself.

"I made an overdose attempt and failed. I felt that was the only way to get out ... When you live in a really dysfunctional home and ... you live in fear every day, you just want to go.'' When she celebrates her 27th birthday tomorrow, however, Ka'apana will be looking ahead, not behind.

On May 5 in New Orleans, she will receive the 2001 Welcome Back Award for Lifetime Achievement for overcoming clinical depression, an insidious and deadly condition. She will receive $7,500 to contribute to a nonprofit organization of her choice.

Mug shot

Eli Lilly and Co. sponsors the national Welcome Back Awards to fight the stigma associated with depression and increase public understanding of the disease, which is treatable.

Ka'apana, now public education assistant at the Mental Health Association of Hawaii, sees many people with symptoms similar to those she had for years.

"Bottomline, if my story can help another teen-ager to stay alive, my life is more than worth living," she said.

AN ESTIMATED 240,000 Hawaii residents have some type of mental health problem, such as depression, obsessive compulsion disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders, she said.

Ka'apana believes her problems began as a child in a broken, dysfunctional home. "I was raised in a pretty unhealthy upbringing, abusive. And unconsciously, not knowing what was wrong, I got into an abusive marriage."

She was married at age 20 and had a son the same year, she said. Recently divorced, she and her ex-husband share custody of their 6-year-old.

Ka'apana said she was suspended from Kamehameha Schools after fighting with another girl when she was 17 and was told she would be expelled if she didn't get therapy.

She went to Kaiser Permanente for counseling, which ended after three "talk sessions," she said. She wasn't diagnosed or treated for clinical depression, she said.

"I think it started and escalated because I never got treated for it."

When she was 23, she received a pamphlet from Kaiser about clinical depression with a checklist. "I happened to read through it and do the checklist. I realized I had more of the symptoms than I should have and that made me call in and set up an appointment."

She was able then to see her file at age 17. "They (at Kaiser) said I was already showing symptoms and were wondering why I wasn't treated at that time."

Ka'apana believes it was because her mother, like so many, thought it was shameful to have mental illness.

Ka'apana also wasn't open to the idea, said Jean L. Fitzgerald, former volunteer for the Mental Health Association in Hawaii who nominated Ka'apana for the national award.

"During her first year with the therapist, she 'played the game,' acting as though nothing were wrong, as would most teen-agers," Fitzgerald said. "Ka'anoi didn't want to have a mental illness. She was only 17. What would her friends say?"

HER CONDITION deteriorated and she considered suicide for several years before making the failed attempt at age 23.

Since then, Fitzgerald said, "Ka'anoi's illness has become her passion," with efforts focused on adolescents. "She puts a human touch to her message, sharing every aspect of her experience -- from her diagnosis and subsequent hospitalization to her suicide attempt and successful treatment.

"She has made a significant contribution to the lives of these youth."

Ka'apana works extensively with Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, stressing that "mental illnesses are real, common, diagnosable and treatable," Fitzgerald said.

"Ka'anoi is an example of the truth behind those words."

Ka'apana had to drop out of Leeward Community College after three years because of a difficult pregnancy. She was bedridden for three months until giving birth.

"It was hard," she said. "I'm usually a 'Let's go out and do something' person."

After her experiences and four years in therapy, Ka'apana has shifted her interest from broadcast journalism. She plans to return to college in August to get a degree in adolescent psychology.

Her son, Kamauliola, mother and Fitzgerald will accompany her to New Orleans for the ceremony.

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