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Mental Health Kokua and West Side Counseling Center working to remove mental health stigma

By BY CINDY SCHUMACHER - | Sep 10, 2015

From left, Dr. Tom Vendetti, director of Mental Health Kokua, and Don Lane, Mental Health Kokua media specialist, film the documentary “Haleakala: A Trek for Dignity.” PHOTO COURTESY OF ARISE.

KAHULUI – One of the biggest barriers faced by people seeking mental health care is the stigma that they may feel. It is what leads them to believe that they are responsible for their own illness or keeps them in denial about it.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “one in four Americans will be affected by a mental health disorder in any given year and many more will have a family member affected. Given how prevalent mental disabilities are, it is especially unfortunate that the stigma is so great.”

On Saturday, Sept. 19, Mental Health Kokua (MHK) will present “ARISE,” a film and music benefit for mental health awareness at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center in Kahului. The program includes the world premiere screening of “Haleakala: A Trek for Dignity” directed by MHK Media Specialist Don Lane and produced by MHK Director Dr. Tom Vendetti.

Beginning at 5 p.m. in the Yokouchi Founder’s Courtyard, the event offers a silent auction with live music performed by multiple Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning artists, including Keola and Moanalani Beamer, Uluwehi Guerrero and Makaha Sons. The featured keynote speaker, Jesse Close, is an internationally recognized author, poet and advocate for mental health reform. In her book “Resilience: Two Sisters and a Story of Mental Illness,” Close chronicles her journey to recovery and activism through the help of her sister, actress Glenn Close.

Dr. Vendetti is attempting, through his work at MHK, to change the way those affected are treated in the community and throughout the state.

“Stigma towards the mentally ill is inherent in the social structures that make up our society,” said Dr. Vendetti, adding that stigma is evident in the way laws are written and resources are allocated.

“‘Haleakala: A Trek for Dignity’ puts a human face on people who experience mental disabilities while hoping to inspire their time of recovery,” said Dr. Vendetti.

“Trekking with Don Lane and the other participants in the film, from the summit of Haleakala to the sea, exposed the truth that people can and do achieve optimum recovery with proper mental health treatment and community support.”

“The opportunity for the public to see the content of this film is geared towards reducing stigma,” said Dr. Vendetti. “We hope it will encourage people with mental health issues to seek help without shame, while opening the doors for those already labeled to become part of our communities.”

“When people ask about the film, I usually speak from my perspective as the director,” said Lane. “It’s an inspiring journey, an analogy and proof that recovery is possible – given the opportunity. We want people to know that we are here and that we offer services for those who need it.”

Many years ago, Lane was diagnosed with a severe mental illness known as bipolar disorder. “Although I have coped with very difficult symptoms at times, this diagnosis does not define me,” he emphasized.

After years of challenges, Lane got help through MHK Peer Coach Naomi Crozier, also a participant in the film sharing her own recovery story. About six months into the MHK program, Lane was stable with recovery in sight.

Already possessing an educated knowledge of filmmaking, he approached Dr. Vendetti, who invited him to his office to talk about media work. The rest is history!

“It was then that I pitched ‘ARISE’ (meaning to stand and become apparent), and the film ‘Haleakala: A Trek for Dignity’ was conceptualized,” Lane recalled. “I was eventually hired as media specialist for MHK. I remain grateful for the opportunity to live a happy and fulfilling life, seen as a person, not as a label, which is what I advocate.”

Lane has spearheaded a movement, along with Dr. Kelly Harnick, founder and owner of West Side Counseling Center in Lahaina, to increase the expectations and standards of mental health care on Maui through RxP advocacy for psychologists.

The RxP legislation would extend authority, now held only by psychiatrists, to psychologists to prescribe psychotropic medications to treat mental and emotional disorders.

“The shortage of psychiatric care available for our most rural Hawaiian communities is blatantly apparent,” said Dr. Harnick, who served the community of Hana in 2008.

“I approached Don Lane about RxP in August 2014 shortly after the announcement that Molokini II facility in Maui Memorial Medical Center was closing,” she explained. “Lane researched it for himself, and then together we became community-advocate partners, along with others, in lobbying at the state level for improved access to care through RxP.”

As novices in the political arena, Dr. Harnick and Lane started reaching out to elected officials, asking for help and talking about RxP.

“I care deeply about the community and my patients,” said Dr. Harnick. “We can and should all work together to help patients. My mission and that of MHK is to provide comprehensive, integrated and high-quality mental health while reducing the stigma attached to it.”

For more information visit www.mentalhealthkokua.org or www.westmauicounseling.com.

For event tickets, visit www.mauiarts.org or call (808) 242-7469.