Being Mindful Of Mental Illness

Kathy Sheffield holds an ‘Outstanding Family Advocate’ certificate from Mental Health America of Hawaii outside the state DOH office on Kauai

Kathy Sheffield made lemonade out of the lemons she was handed 15 years ago after her son, who was 25 at the time, was diagnosed with mental illness. Rather than dwell on heartache, she took the advice of her son’s psychiatrist and learned as much as possible about mental illness so she could properly care for her family.

“Because this was going to be a lifetime process for us,” she says.

She turned to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an organization dedicated to helping families become educated about mental illness, and learned how to cope.

“I saw the light come on in myself,” says Sheffield, who developed enough skills to allow her to have a “whole new relationship” with her son.

The California native found the nonprofit to be so helpful that, after she moved to Kauai in 2007, she volunteered to launch a local chapter so that others could reap the same benefits. She also made it her mission to dispel myths associated with mental illness and reduce its negative stigma, “which is our single biggest problem. There’s still so much stigma and judgment about mental illness,” she says. “People are not educated; they don’t understand it’s an illness.”

One of the things family members learn during a course led by Kathy Sheffi eld of NAMI is brain biology

As many as one in every five Americans suffer from mental illness in a given year. Mental illnesses range from obsessive-compulsive and post-traumatic stress disorders, to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Anxiety and depression are some of the more common diagnoses that many may not even realize they suffer from or have loved ones who do.

Yet people don’t react the same way to mental illness as they do to diseases like cancer.

“They’d be there with casserole dishes and wanting to know if they can drive you to chemotherapy,” says Sheffield. “Because the behavior with mental illness can be so bizarre, and affects so many different aspects of their life, people are afraid of it and have not taken the time to educate themselves.

“But it is very much an illness, and it’s an illness that affects the whole family and the whole support structure of the person who has the mental illness.”

Sheffield is doing everything she can to raise awareness and educate people, and she was especially busy in May in observance of Mental Health Month. She recently conducted another Mental Health First Aid course at the state Department of Health, Kauai District Health Office. The training teaches attendees how to quickly and properly respond to a crisis situation with someone who is afflicted with mental illness or who may be exhibiting behavior related to alcohol or drug abuse. A total of 16 participants completed the most recent eight-hour course, with 32 on the waiting list. The goal is to have all DOH employees participate.

Kathy Sheffield with Marc Sicignano, a certified Family-to-Family instructor on Kauai

“Mental health is closely linked to chronic disease, prevention control and management,” says Rachelle Bachran, DOH Kauai District Health Office’s public health educator IV. “Depression is often a symptom of the daily burden of dealing with chronic illnesses. Awareness and education can increase the chances someone will seek help and find support for self or someone they love.”

Sheffield also has offered the same classes with Kauai Police Department recruits and hopes eventually to target all police officers.

“Kathy is passionate about sharing her knowledge and experiences in assisting individuals with mental illness,” says KPD Capt. Mark Ozaki. “Her training doesn’t claim to make our officers experts in treating or diagnosing mental illness, but it does give an officer a general idea on how to recognize signs of mental illness, and provides some additional tools in how to communicate effectively.”

Sheffield’s training through NAMI Kauai also has allowed her to provide a course for family members of loved ones afflicted with mental illness. Biweekly classes for six weeks teach participants a variety of topics related to mental illness, such as getting through the immediate crisis, brain biology and the stages of adapting to the trauma of the diagnosis.

“Because the loved one goes through the grieving process just as the patient themselves do,” explains Sheffield.

She also leads a NAMI Signature Family-to-Family Support Group once a month that allows family members to get together, share their stories and lend support.

“The thing I love about this island is the people who have been helped by this continue to keep coming back no matter what their situation is with their loved one because they remember when they started and what they felt like,” says Sheffield.

Attendees learn skills such as how to separate the person they love from the person with the illness, and topics vary each month. Sheffield aspires to do even more to help raise awareness about mental illness and loves her “job” (that doesn’t pay a penny) so much because it leads to more peace and compassion.

“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” she says.

Contact Sheffield at NAMI. or 635-3239 for more information.