Karen Kangas, director of recovery and family affairs at Hartford Healthcare, used to work as a principal of a school. That is before she was hospitalized for a manic episode and the doctor in the hospital said she would never work again. Her school superintendant came to see her and told her she would be fired. That was in Colorado before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed by Congress.
Flash forward years later and Kangas wins awards for her mental health advocacy and has worked at many organizations promoting mental health. It all started with a job ad she saw in the Hartford Courant looking for a person with mental illness experience encouraged to apply. She applied and they thought she was over-qualified because of her doctorate in education. However, she said she would take whatever it pays and she got the job. She started working for Fairfield Hills hospital and absolutely loved learning from people with lived experience. Now, at age 76, she’s been working full-time for over 30 years.
“I think the biggest tool people in recovery need is support,” Kangas said. She also trains people seeking employment as peer specialists at Advocacy Unlimited’s Recovery University. For Kangas, she received support first at a support group in Colorado.
“I don’t like to compare it to diabetes or cancer because it isn’t,” she said.
If one goes into the hospital for an illness like those, one gets visitors and perhaps flowers. Not in psychiatric. When Kangas was inpatient, she was lucky if she got visitors.
Kangas has traveled all around the country for SAMHSA, the Restraints Seclusion Taskforce and other organizations sharing her story. She has been the only one from Connecticut to win the Clifford Beers Award from Mental Health America and Advocacy Unlimited named an award after her.
Kangas wishes people were more visible. “There aren’t enough positive stories out there,” she said. She was on the cover of the Hartford Courant’s Northeast Magazine. She’s had reporters from the Courant follow her around for a month to do a story on her.
Kangas’ ideal mental health system would be where inpatient treatment would be a last resort. People in crisis would talk first to clinicians or even their peers. But she admitted, this is a long way off.
Kangas builds her self-care around talking with people over coffee about recovery, playing bridge, being with her friends and grandchildren, shopping and reading.