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The Art of Mental Wellness

It’s true: One in five adults has a mental health condition. Yet it’s also true there is major inequity in the prevention and discourse of mental health and physical health. Perhaps that’s where the phrase “suffer in silence” comes from.

But in an age of holistic medicine, should there be such disparity? Shouldn’t one’s mental well-being be monitored and cared for like one’s heart, blood pressure and other vital functions?

To quote the World Health Organization, “There is no health without mental health.” The time has come, it asserts, for a radical change in thinking about mental health, putting it at the very core of political dialogue and policy-making.

MidWeek found two individuals — local advocate Trisha Kajimura and artist Solomon Enos — who offer interesting perspectives on the subject. They are unrelated in vocations yet have a connection that is timely and germane to this story.

Kajimura is executive director of Mental Health America of Hawai’i and one of the state’s enlightened voices on patients’ rights and access to emotional wellness. Artist-illustrator Enos is literally painting a big picture to support mental health in Hawai’i and hopes to inspire openness and unity on the subject.

As a prelude to an upcoming MHA fundraiser, this story provides an update on Hawai’i’s mental illness issues. While Kajimura is keen to do so, she knows it is a subject easily misunderstood or dismissed due to inherent stigma and biases.

But if ever there is a time to open our minds and hearts to mental health, it is now.

As Kajimura might suggest, “Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.”

Adults and Children Nationwide, it is estimated that 43.7 million adult Americans (18.5 percent) experience a mental health condition. Serious suicidal thoughts are reported by approximately 9 million (3.9 percent).

Young Americans ages 12-17 account for 1.7 million (9.9 percent) reportedly experiencing severe depression. Suicides account for more youth deaths in Hawai’i than disease or casualties, according to the state Department of Health. Major depression is marked by significant and pervasive feelings of sadness associated with suicidal thoughts. Cost continues to be the major barrier to care, along with lack of access to insurance and services and the stigma and embarrassment associated with mental illness.

Yet access usually leads to appropriate treatment, and more often than not, treatment leads to improvement. Kajimura contends that mental conditions are treatable like any other disease.

Along with the structural hurdles, a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that less than 25 percent of America’s 45 million adults with a mental illness ever receive treatment. A crucial reason for the low percentage is both embarrassment and stigma.

Community issues such as homelessness and other socioeconomic stressors impact population health and resources.

“Hawai’i is in a crisis mode, and we must address the pipeline that creates that situation,” says Kajimura. “We strongly believe we need to pay attention to mental health preventive programs.”

MHA Hawai’i and its national affiliate, Mental Health America, focus on educational efforts, assisting people to get help and advocating for improved care.

Education and Advocacy
For 75 years, MHA has been Hawai’i’s leading mental health education and advocacy organization. It helped launch the state’s Suicide and Crisis Line, Mental Health Kōkua outreach, and Hale Kipa counseling and shelter.

MHA also was a driving force in improving patient care at Hawai’i State Hospital in Kāne’ohe in the 1940s and 1950s. It pushed for the passage of parity in health insurance coverage for mental health treatment in the 1990s.

Current youth programs address suicide and bully prevention, safe spaces for at-risk teens and college mental health awareness.

“I have observed the challenges faced by individuals with mental illness along with their loved ones as they struggle to find help and achieve recovery,” says Kajimura, 46, a graduate of Punahou and University of Hawai’i School of Public Health. “These challenges affect people’s chances of succeeding and thriving in our society.”

Deepest Pain
According to Kajimura, “When people talk about mental health, they might narrowly focus on personal concerns such as dementia or attention deficient disorders. But mental health is so much broader than that.”

The mentally ill, one of the most marginalized segments of our society, cope with: • Reluctance to seek help or treatment • Lack of understanding by family, friends, co-workers or others • Fewer opportunities for work, school or social activities or trouble finding housing • Bullying, physical violence or harassment • Health insurance that doesn’t adequately cover mental illness treatment • Hopelessness in overcoming challenges and improving one’s situation

As one patient puts it, “The deepest pain I ever felt was denying my own feelings to make everyone else comfortable.”

Stakeholders in the mental health field want to change the conversation about mental health.

“There are groundbreaking technologies and advanced research buried in public ignorance while myths and misconceptions prevail,” Kajimura professes.

The logical premise is that mental health conditions should be treated long before they reach the most critical points in the disease process.

National MHA president and CEO Paul Gionfriddo affirms that, saying, “For too long, the focus of our policy attention has been on public safety, post-crisis intervention, and deep-end services. But all evidence shows that to get the best results and to promote recovery from mental health conditions, the secret is early identification and intervention.”

Garden Party
Thus, any opportunity to network with stakeholders and reach new audiences with the nonprofit organization’s message is valuable.

That’s why Kajimura, MHA staff, board members, advisers and volunteers are looking forward to its annual benefit, scheduled for 5-8

p.m. Oct. 18 at Cafe Julia in the YWCA on Richards Street.

The evening with local artist Solomon Enos celebrates creativity and the connection between art and mental health. An exclusively designed 9-by-6-foot mural by Enos, a native Hawaiian artist-illustrator, is the focus of the event. The acrylic abstract painting, titled Garden of My Mind, encompasses 106 smaller canvases of art reserved for individual donors. Enos also will be doing a live painting at the event.

Born and raised in Makaha, Enos has the creative gene of his parents, artist Eric and Shelley Enos. He is adept at a variety of media, including oil paintings, book illustrations, outdoor murals and mixed media sculptures.

A self-described “intelligent optimist,” Enos portrays aspirational visions of the world at its best, which at times is deployed through poly-fantastic (science fiction) narratives.

Describing his MHA mural, he says, “It’s a view of a place that I go to … a literal garden with giant plants and

banana trees, surrounded by taro blowing in the late afternoon wind.

“It’s a calm, beautiful scene that anyone can adopt as a meditative landscape,” he adds.

Tying it to MHA’s mission, Enos offers his view that “mental health is the string that threads together the lei of problems and solutions we see around us everywhere. It is understanding that we are narrators of a collaborative culture and life journey.”

The relationship of creativity and mental health is not lost on Kajimura and MHA patrons. They know that participation in arts and cultural activities link people to their community and provide pathways to self-expression, recreation, training and employment.

For many years, the creative arts have been used in therapy for those recovering from mental illness or addiction. So, it is with that in mind that MHA Hawai’i stages this year’s artistic event that metaphorically invites guests to Enos’ colorful garden.

The mural to be unveiled at the Oct. 18 benefit reminds supporters that mental health, like a garden, must be tended to, nurtured, and be in harmony with its environment to be fruitful.

As Enos reflects, “To heal the mind is to heal reality.”

It underscores what mentally ill persons are often told by their therapists: “Your illness doesn’t define you. Your strength and courage do.”

For details on Mental Health America of Hawai’i’s “Garden of My Mind” event, visit mentalhealthhawaii.org.