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Kumi Macdonald: The head of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Hawaii helps people struggling with pandemic-related stress

                                Kumi Macdonald, executive director of NAMI Hawaii (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
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Kumi Macdonald, executive director of NAMI Hawaii (National Alliance on Mental Illness).

What does NAMI Hawaii do? And how have restrictions/worries tied to the pandemic affected your work?

We provide support, education, advocacy and awareness on mental health to the entire state. Our main program is “Family to Family Education,” an eight-week course for people who care for someone with a mental health condition. It teaches things like problem-solving, communication skills, empathy, setting boundaries, etc. We also have family support groups, “connection recovery” support groups, a speakers bureau, “Ending the Silence” for youth, CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) Law Enforcement training, conferences, workshops and our (fundraiser) NAMIWalks.

Our call volumes have doubled since the pandemic surfaced, with many people stressed by feeling trapped in their homes, loss of income, fear of contacting the virus, having added workload of homeschooling, cooking, working from home and dealing with their families — with no breaks.

The most common (caller) concerns are from people with increased stress, and from family members who see their loved ones showing signs of depression or anxiety, and not knowing how to help them. (In May, about one-third of U.S. adults had signs of clinical anxiety or depression, according to a federal survey measuring COVID-19 disruptions.)

NAMI Hawaii was one of the first in the nation to provide our services online. … Within three weeks, we had our “Coping with Stress” workshop and started a new support group for stress and mental health. Our family support groups and family classes are now online as well.

NAMI Hawaii is holding a virtual year-end celebration this weekend. Looking back, what are the nonprofit’s highs and lows for 2020?

Our highs include being able to help so many people this year, especially more people in rural communities and on the neighbor islands. Because of the pandemic, we are connecting more people to our support groups and classes though Zoom.

The lows are that there are still many people who do not have Zoom capabilities or find it challenging; and that people need (mental health) help more than ever. There is still so much to do. We are overloaded with work and underfunded, but NAMI is about hope. We will press on with our work.

What are NAMI’s front-burner advocacy issues and plans for 2021?

Mental health has become a bigger issue with the pandemic, but funding for services is always an issue, too. We need more state and federal funding to help empower our families to care for their loved ones with mental illness; we need to get more information and education to our youths so that they can be treated early; and we need to educate our leaders and law enforcement to understand how to help people in a mental health crisis.

Also, in the coming year, we want to train new leaders in our NAMI National training. … In addition, we want to continue expanding our CIT Law Enforcement Training to the entire state, and ACT (Assisted Community Treatment) training statewide. …

(ACT training is related to a state law that allows advocates to obtain court-ordered psychiatric care for people who refuse treatment, usually because their illness prevents them from knowing they are sick.) We are partnering with the Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC) and Mental Health America of Hawaii to train communities on ACT through an online training. In January, TAC will help our communities with the implementation of ACT programs. … Currently, the Big Island and Oahu seem to have the most interest in this training.

Untreated mental health conditions can lead to adverse impacts such as increased risk for chronic disease, homelessness, poverty, incarceration and premature death. By raising awareness of mental health conditions, providing education and support, advocating for mental health issues, and encouraging brain research, NAMI seeks to effect change.

As individuals and families see change and healing, they are empowered to volunteer, to train as teachers and leaders in our organization. We are a volunteer-run organization with three part-time staff members.

NAMI Hawaii was established in 1991. Has the quality of life for individuals and families affected by mental illness here improved significantly in the past three decades?

Yes, we have seen change. More people are getting help. More information is available, and there are more treatment options. I live in recovery from depression and 30 years ago, people didn’t believe that I had a problem. They saw mental illness as a weakness or “all in my head.” Now there are more effective treatments options. … I have learned coping skills so that I don’t need to take medication anymore. …

What do you find most satisfying/rewarding in your work?

I love sharing my story and giving people hope. As a mother of someone who had serious depression and an individual who lives successfully in recovery from depression, there is hope for a new day.


>> Title: NAMI Hawaii, executive director since 2015

>> Professional experience: Former church ministry director, hotel manager, preschool educator

>> Education:Roosevelt High School; Kapiolani Community College, associate of arts degree; studied at University of Hawaii-Manoa

>> Other community roles: Sunday school teacher at Honolulu Christian Church

>> Personal background: Born in Japan, raised in California and Hawaii; daughter of Christian pastor

>> Assorted favorites: Favorite movie, “Sound of Music;” other faves: reading and lifelong learning, church, family and friends, and hobbies such as snorkeling and hiking. Fave quote: “As for me, I will always have hope … ” (Psalm 71:14).

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