At a recent Friday morning Upcountry Rotary meeting at Casanova Italian Restaurant & Deli, two guest speakers shared their experiences with drug addiction, alcoholism, family upheaval, prison time and severe mental illness.
What motivated these women to share intimate details of their lives with a group of strangers?
They are part of a movement on Maui aiming to shine a beacon of hope to raise awareness on mental illness, to bring it out of the realm of shame and stigma. Both women suffered from mental illness (psychosis and schizophrenia) for years, medicating themselves with drugs and alcohol to lessen the pain of the disease. Their lives were on a downward spiral until they got help.
Bud Bowles spoke at a recent Upcountry Rotary Club meeting about the reality of mental illness and the support available for those who suffer from it. He is available to speak about mental health issues to other interested groups.
Bud Bowles, executive director of United Self-Help (USH), a support system based in Hawai'i, explained that, at any given time, "one person in five has a mental illness, and of those, one in three people actually get help. Of the two-thirds who don't get help, 60 percent will turn to drugs and alcohol for relief from the mental illness."
According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report, "half of all mental illnesses begin before the age of 14, three-fourths begin before the age of 24. Nearly half (46 percent) of all Americans suffer from a mental illness at some point in life."
"If there's one thing I want everyone to understand," Bowles declared, "it's that mental illness is a chemical imbalance caused by genetics or past traumatic occurrences or environment. It is not a result of weak personalities [the myth believed by 71 percent of those questioned in a 1990 study]."
For example, "According to a Duke University study, 49 percent of our past presidents have had a mental illness; 11 of them suffered while in office," shared Bowles.
But if mental illness is a treatable chemical imbalance, why don't sufferers get help? The U.S. Department of Health's Office on Women's Health (USDHHS-OWH) states that the majority of sufferers don't because they feel ashamed. They may not recognize that mental illness is a real, treatable illness. Or else they don't know where to get help or how.
USDHHS-OWH explains that treatment is determined individually. Some types include talk therapy, group therapy, medication, or a combination of these. The organization believes that "Seeking treatment for mental illness is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. And it is the first step on a path to recovery."
In Hawai'i, mental health challenges are surprisingly common, states a Hawai'i Department of Health pamphlet. "They affect almost every family in Hawai'i regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, economic status or location."
"Unfortunately, still today, admitting that one has a mental illness-a chemical imbalance not unlike diabetes-could result in one losing his or her job," Bowles said.
With the holiday season approaching, a busy and sometimes exasperating time for some, it is important to remember that stress can lead to depression, anxiety and other difficulties. A stress test given to members at the Rotary meeting stated that, "Stress can become a chronic problem that can go unrecognized." If you neglect your diet or get insufficient sleep, blow up easily and fail to see the humor in things others find funny, you may be "approaching the danger zone." Take your own stress test at www.cmha.ca/bins/content_page.asp?cid=4-42-216.
Bowles recommends 10 remedies for stress. First and foremost are laughter, exercise, and talking it out with a friend.
"Even pretend laughing can elevate your mood," said Bowles. "Try it right now-10 belly laughs-and see how you feel."
"Also, make sure you're getting enough exercise and drinking enough water, as dehydration can feel like depression," advised Bowles.
According to the Mayo Clinic Website, the Institute of Medicine determined that an adequate intake of fluids each day is roughly 13 cups for men and nine cups for women. Do not tally carbonated soda and coffee into this intake equation.
Bowles shared other stress antidotes, such as helping others, letting go of the things we can't change and of our attempts at perfection, and getting plenty of sleep and eating a healthy diet.
"If we don't take action, stress can lead to depression and more debilitating conditions," Bowles warned.
The two women who attended the Rotary meeting with Bowles are part of USH. Because of treatment, these women are healthier and more engaged in their lives and in their communities. They take part in support groups in Wailuku, 'Iao Valley and Kihei, and they continue to share their stories to make it feel safer for others to get help and reduce suffering.
Bowles invites those who have questions for themselves-or for a friend or loved one-to call the USH "warm line" from 4:30 to 9 p.m. at (866) 866-4357 (HELP).
The USH Website, www.unitedselfhelp.org, offers links to many local and national mental health resources. Bowles is available to speak about mental health issues to interested groups.