People with a mental illness face a double-edge sword. Besides struggling with symptoms like powerful delusions, crushing depression, frustrating loss of focus and crippling anxiety, they have to deal with the dire consequences of stigma, said Betty Burlile, a Consumer, Family and Youth Alliance Mental Health Conference planning committee member and workshop co-leader.
Having to face and respond to how the rest of society perceives their inner struggle only intensifies their mental illness. Stigma is prevalent, even in Kona, where it can be found in public; hospitals and treatment facilities: workplaces; and governmental, medical and legal offices, she said.
In addition to helping conference attendees learn how to combat and cope with their illness, as well as where they and their loved ones can go for help and support, Burlile strove to help them to do something about stigma, explaining how confrontation can improve and save a life.
The conference, held Thursday at the West Hawaii Civic Center, carried the message of recovery, empowerment and healing to people experiencing mental health issues. Approximately 70 people attended, participating in various educational workshops. Many shared their stories of struggle, progress and hope. Some found solutions or solace to their situations.
Burlile knows firsthand what stigma is like. She discovered her mental illness in 1972 after attempting suicide at age 11. She began cutting herself to cope with stress, as well as deal with living in a dysfunctional and abusive environment. Overcoming emotions, Burlile bravely shared how a case worker, using a mirror, helped her see how other people looked at her self-cutting and how they cared — something she had never considered. Now a volunteer advocate for the Speaker’s Bureau and a West Hawaii Suicide Task Force member, Burlile urged the public to not look at the mental illness or physical deformities, but the person.
“Self-stigma make people less likely to seek treatment, and as can lead to isolation, low self-esteem, distorted self-image, and in some cases, suicide,” she said. “As a result people can refrain from taking an active role in various areas in life such as employment, housing and social life. Whether you have mental illness or not, push past the misconceptions and equip yourself with the grounded facts.”
During the Dealing with Stigma workshop, several participants said mental illnesses, such as depression and schizophrenia, are just like diabetes, HIV/AIDS or heart disease — all treatable illnesses. Still, many view mental illness as the victim’s fault.
Workshop co-leader and CARE Hawaii case manager Jeramy Madrid showed how fictional accounts of mental illness are not helping, by playing scenes from movies like “The Shining,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Lord of the Rings,” where characters with such conditions are portrayed as villains or lunatics.
Solutions to stigma included talking about mental illness openly and often; treating people with mental illnesses equally; and focusing on the abilities and competencies of those affected.
“Telling someone with a mental illness to take your medication and you’ll be fine isn’t realistic,” Burlile said. “Educate yourself what a mental illness is and what it is not.”
During his workshop, Randy Hack, a state Adult Mental Health Division consumer grievance coordinator, educated attendees on the rights those with mental illnesses should be given. He said those rights should be explained as many times as needed. He encouraged them to speak out and act on their own behalf, as well as to not give up when dealing with people, including service providers, who discourage them.
Foremost, Hack said, people have the right to privacy, respect and personal dignity. Other rights included receiving appropriate, quality treatment and support services, regardless of one’s ability to pay or where they live; having a written treatment and discharge plan; being free to refuse treatment, medication and restraint, except in emergencies; reading and copying clinical records; and discussing treatment.
Hack mentioned several advocacy organizations, support groups and programs available, including certified peer specialists —people in recovery from mental illness who serve as role models to Adult Mental Health Division consumers. However, workshop participants felt more basic education and skill training to dealing with the population is needed, not just for those providing mental health services, but the public, too.