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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 13, 2001

Honorable Mention
Mental health worker conquers depression

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Staff Writer

Ka'anoi Ka'apana remembers being an abrupt and unruly teenager.

Ka'anoi Ka'apana overcame depression to help others at the Mental Health Association. Last week, she received the Eli Lilly Co.'s "Welcome Back Award for Lifetime Achievement" for overcoming clinical depression.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

"If you said 'yes,' I said 'no,' " Ka'apana says. "I did well in school and had good grades, but I just did not want to be there. I was very rebellious. I just know I was not mentally doing very well."

But she was not diagnosed with clinical depression, even though she had some therapy in high school. It wasn't until after she dropped out of college, had a child, and attempted suicide with an overdose of pills that Ka'apana's depression was finally diagnosed and treated.

"I was leafing through a magazine and there was a checklist for depression, and I went through it and I had everything — feeling hopeless, not wanting to get out of bed in the morning, even (feeling) suicidal — and that's what made me call (for an appointment).

"My best advice now is to seek help and know that you're not alone. There are people out there who want to help you."

Ka'apana, 27, now a mental-health worker, was honored last week in New Orleans as the national winner of the Eli Lilly Co.'s 2001 "Welcome Back Award for Lifetime Achievement" for overcoming clinical depression, a condition estimated to affect as many as 18,600 young people in Hawai'i every year.

Depression also affects an estimated 8 to 10 percent of the adult population. In Hawai'i that could be as many as 120,000 people who suffer from some symptoms of depression, including a sense of hopelessness and a loss of interest in normal activities.

A month ago Ka'apana was named Hawai'i winner of the Lilly award, and went on to win the national honor. The win comes with a check for $7,500 to give to a nonprofit organization of her choice. She has chosen the Mental Health Association of Hawai'i, where she has worked for the past 16 months as a public education assistant to spread the word to others that depression is treatable.

"You have to learn how to work through it and deal with it," said Ka'apana, who has been through three years of therapy and still sees a therapist regularly to keep herself mentally healthy.

Often she is called upon to talk to school classes to let other young people suffering the same kind of depression know there is hope.

"You can go to schools where they're not responsive and don't want to talk about it," she said, "and those are the schools I worry about."

Greg Farstrup, executive director of the Mental Health Association, marvels at Ka'apana's openness in telling her story.

"A lot of people can identify with her and not feel like they're alone," Farstrup says. "She's so dedicated to educating people about the importance of seeking help when they have mental health problems."

But when she was 17, Ka'apana had no idea of what she was suffering. And she certainly didn't want a name as frightening as mental illness attached to it.

"When you're a teenager you don't want anyone to know you have a mental illness," she said.

After her suicide attempt and before she sought help, Ka'apana was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. That was the motivation she needed to get better, she said. "There were people who didn't remember their name or how to take a shower. I thought 'My God, what am I doing here?' That was the slap in my face. I was hiding out from life. That's when I started doing everything my therapist told me to do to get better.

"So if he said I needed a support group, a mental health workshop, or any kind of therapy, I'd do that."

Especially important in her treatment were the women's support group she attended for two years through Kaiser and the depression support group he recommended. In addition, she attended a class on co-dependency and a workshop on mental health.

Her own depression was not the result of a brain-chemical imbalance, but was diagnosed as "situational depression" because of a childhood that included her family breaking apart.

"I had homework to do," she explains of her treatment, "to figure out what's going on in your life and how it started. I had to figure out what was wrong in the past and try and fix that in my life now. I had to take a lot of self-help treatment."

This summer Ka'apana is going back to school, this time to get a bachelor's degree in adolescent psychology.

"If what I went through can help other people to survive, that makes life worth living," she said. "Saving a life, that's a pretty big reward."