Event tackles
isle mental health

Conference attendees learn
of the progress Hawaii is making
on treating mental illness

Hawaii mental health consumers say they're proud of the new system being developed by the Department of Health under a federal court order.

"There is a feeling of hope, of light, of new innovations," consumer advocate Rita Gorospe said at a national mental health conference yesterday at the Sheraton Waikiki.

Addressing Dr. Thomas Hester, Adult Mental Health Division chief, and Dr. Alan Radke, medical director, she said, "We owe a lot of gratitude to both of you to what you've brought to (mental health) consumers ... You actually listened to us, which pretty much wasn't done before, and included us in planning."

Gorospe, 55, said later she was diagnosed with mental illness in 1994 and "after multiple attempts at suicide found I still had reason to be on Earth. Thank God."

Now she's trying to help others as a member of the Mental Health Association of Hawaii board, the Protection and Advocacy Council, and various boards involved with the state mental health system.

Debra Sutton of Wailuku, 47, chairwoman of the Maui Service Board for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, said she "used to be a person left out of society, who didn't think I'd be anything" because of mental illness.

With Vocational Rehabilitation assistance, she went to nursing school and has started work as a licensed practical nurse, she said.

Hester and Radke described the evolution of Hawaii's mental health system at the end of a three-day mental health conference. The Adult Mental Health Division hosted the event during the American Association of Community Psychiatrists' annual winter meeting.

About 25 mental health consumers from throughout the state attended the conference with state support. The Hawaii Disability Rights Center also sponsored three consumers.

Dr. Jacqueline Feldman of Birmingham, Ala., president of the psychiatrists' association, said it's important that a mental health system "is not them, it's us" to remove the stigma of ignorance and fear of mental illness.

"The national shame" is that so many mentally ill people are in prisons or jails, she said.

In Hawaii, plans to remedy deficiencies at the State Hospital for the mentally ill in Kaneohe and develop a community mental health system have been drafted under a court agreement stemming from a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against the state in 1991.

Hester and Radke said the transformation to a comprehensive, integrated system is just beginning but services have increased 20 percent and the system has "leaped two decades."

The state has received a $3.6 million grant to establish services for people suffering from both mental illness and substance abuse, Hester said.

"The fundamental challenge is to take the opportunity we have with a court-ordered plan to create a sustained system of excellence," he said.

Practices resulting from research and experience will be implemented with assistance from the University of Hawaii to establish a Center for Evidence-Based Practices, he said.

A film entitled "Years of Darkness" was shown to conferees Thursday to illustrate the goal of recovery in the mental health system. Produced by Dr. Tom Vendetti, head of Mental Health Kokua on Maui, the film tells how Sam Khong, a Maui mental health consumer, began healing after returning to Cambodia and finding his family.

He had been gone 30 years, trapped in the United States during the Khmer Rouge's regime in Cambodia after the U.S. Navy recruited him in 1974 at age 17 as part of a military assistance program to Cambodia.

Vendetti, caseworker Judith Mancini and two Mental Health Kokua board members took Khong to Cambodia as part of his treatment plan. He was reunited with his 81-year-old mother, two brothers, two sisters and family members who survived the Khmer Rouge atrocities.

He was suicidal and depressed every day before the trip but is doing extremely well now, the mental health officials said. "No more suicidal," Khong said, "because I found my family. It gives me hope."

Radke noted that the Adult Mental Health Division initiated an ACCESS system in 2002 to facilitate assessments and treatment for people seeking help. It had 57,000 calls the first year and is now receiving 7,000 a month, he said.

More than 1,000 new clients entered the system in the first year for a total of 5,550 as of last June and the number is expected to increase, he said.

"We still have consumers on the beach and in the parks, homeless, and others in jails and prison because of criminalization of mentally ill in Hawaii."

Among innovative services of the new system will be mobile outreach teams responding within 15 minutes to a crisis call and crisis support management with temporary caseworkers.

Regardless whether a person is overwhelmed by mental illness or a situation, such as leaving jail with no place to go, services will be provided, Radke said.

Hester said 51 new positions have been authorized for state mental health centers and 40 more are being processed.


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