Connecticut Mental Health Advocate Karen Kangas Shares Her Story to Help Others Seek Treatment

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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.

Life after Disclosure: One Woman’s Decision to Fight

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When Kathy Flaherty dropped her biochemistry thesis at Wellesley College due to anxiety and depression, her life took a new trajectory.

After graduation, she applied and was accepted to Harvard Law School. But it was not long into her tenure at Harvard, when her manic symptoms surfaced and she was hospitalized and given the proper diagnosis of bipolar disorder. When she got out of the hospital, she decided to disclose her condition by putting Council of Former Patients of Mclean Hospital on her resume. The public interest advising office suggested she reconsider this move but she resisted.

“As far as I was concerned, if somebody didn’t want me to work for them because of that I probably wouldn’t want to work for them anyway,” said Flaherty. “I decided to disclose because I honestly couldn’t imagine living any other way. I didn’t really put a whole lot of thought into it.”

Her third year of law school she read an article in the student newspaper about another student who was clearly stuggling with mental illness and bothering people in the dorms.

“This offended me so greatly that I wrote an op-ed in the law school newspaper and came out of the closet,” she said. “People praised me for doing it but for me it was just the right thing to do.”

While getting to live honestly about her condition, she faced her discrimination when she applied for admission to the Bar in the State of Connecticut. Already a member of the Bar in two other states, she wanted to be a member in her home state where she intended to live and practice. Her admittance to the Connecticut Bar was delayed for a year and a half. It was delayed because there was a series of questions on the application that asked about specific diagnosis and treatments within a five year period of taking the Bar.

“The discriminatory beliefs were just as pervasive in the legal community as they were in the general public.”

After a number of meetings with the local committee, she met with a group on the state level. They eventually decided to admit her to practice conditionally. This meant every six months on a certain day of the month her doctor would have to write a letter saying she was compliant with treatment. If the letter arrived late, it never did, she would get a call on the day of the month asking where it was.

“It was a very frustrating process but one I put up with because I wanted to be in the Bar. I didn’t think the questions were appropriate,” she said.

The result of a previous lawsuit, the questions used to be worse. Over time, the questions have gotton better. They focus more on conduct. “But the old questions were worded in such a way that if I answered yes that I had received mental health treatment, they made the automatic assumption that because I had a diagnosis that I was a potential danger to clients,” Flaherty said.

“Those [Bar examination] questions are detrimental because they discourage people from getting help they might need,” she said.

In 2010, the Bar changed the rule so that the questions had to be asked with compliance to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Flaherty now works at the Connecticut Legal Rights Project (CLRP) where she worked her way up from intern to Executive Director over time. CLRP Inc. came about in 1990 after settling a lawsuit brought by patients in the once three big state hospitals, two of which were closed. The patients were represented by the CT ACLU and was settled in what’s called a consent decree. As part of this decree, the state gives them money to help people who face discrimination in housing.

“This is a truly great job for me,” she said. “I get to represent people in my community. When somebody talks about being locked up against their will, when I say I understand what you feel, I actually really mean it because it happened to me.”

Flaherty also is vice chair of the CT Keep the Promise Coalition. KTP was formed after the state shut down two big hospitals and promised to reinvest the savings into community based services and never kept that promise. Flaherty spends much of her time with others lobbying the Connecticut state legislature.

Her secret to wellnes: running. She’s run 5ks, 10ks, a few half marathons, and one marathon. She participates in Run 169 Towns, where one runs a race in each town, and is two thirds of the way through Connecticut.

“I am slow but determined. If I start a race, I will get to the finish line eventually,” she said.

The Obsessions of My Compulsions

There’s something lucky about air tracing certain numbers over and over on the exact day they appear on the calendar. There’s something not cool about being seen on video at a town meeting you’re reporting on for a newspaper fingering your eyebrows as if their static gives you a cosmic high, an infinite orgasm. You’ve never been one to judge people unless they do something rude to you but in tenth grade at an arts camp you rub your hands up against a wall every time you have an encounter with the camp cook. He’s actually a nice man who let you play his guitar it’s just there’s something weird/gross about him you just can’t name. Actually, it’s not about him at all. It’s about me.

Around the same time in my youth that my bipolar symptoms were surfacing, I was privy to strange, obsessive thoughts that might have been obsessive compulsive disorder. I’ve never spoken to anyone about these thoughts until now on this blog. The OCD symptoms comes and goes with me and it’s never been completely disabling. But when I experience a periodic onset, I have trouble getting the thoughts to stop.

I don’t see the need to bring this up with my psychiatrist. I have learned cognitive behavioral techniques from many therapists that I also use to combat my obsessive brain. I also find meditation and yoga work well for me in calming my mind down in one of these states. It’s not about controlling my thoughts; it’s about letting them go. If I am in the middle of a repeticious cycle of pen twirling or air writing, I put the pen down and lean into meditation. I chant let it go while my eyes are closed over and over until the original compulsion passes. Once I open my eyes again, I am free of those thoughts. Sometimes I do this activity a few times over the course of a day.

In high school, I thought I had AIDS. I didn’t actually have the disease but my mind became obsessed that I would blurt out to someone “I have AIDS.” This became an endless obsession to protect my reputation at school that I would say the wrong thing to people. Public speaking became a nightmare. I dealt by turning inward and to my close circle of friends. It inhibited me from truly particpating in school activities because I was afraid of what my mind would blurt out. It’s almost an internal Tourrette’s.

Writing helps me sort out the truth between the thoughts in my head and what’s really happening, what I am experiencing. Keeping a journal of freewriting that no one will read in a composition book helps me self-diagnose when these onsets are occuring. Just like when I keep a mood chart and journal for my bipolar symptoms, this allows me to see when these thoughts are occuring and their duration. It also forces me to see what is real and what isn’t. Stress triggers them as much as idleness when I have been periodically unemployed. However, they’ve been most pervasive when I was working full-time.

This is not to say that my job is the trigger. I like what I do and do it well. I have found ways to minimize these thoughts when they come up and make their occurance very infrequent. These thoughts have forced me to slow my manic brain down and focus on one thing at a time. I pay detailed attention to copy editing and it has forced me to see how the details make up the larger picture.