Listed below is an article about Chacku Mathai who is the new Director of our MHA in Monroe, Ontario, Livingston and Wyoming Counties. Many of us have known Chacku for years and have great respect for his work, intelligence and passion for recovery. His personal narrative as detailed below is inspirational. We are so glad that he joins us as part of the MHA movement.
On another note, Pat Woods, who has been our longest tenure MHA director, has officially announced her retirement after serving in the capacity of MHA Director in that area for over thirty two years. I have had the pleasure of working with Pat for the last fifteen years and she has done absolutely incredible work in making the MHA a leader in Western New York in terms of community services and support. She has built the organization from a small operation into a large entity focused on the foundation and principles of the MHA movement around peer support, family involvement and community engagement. She is also a wonderful person. Both personally and professionally, Pat will be greatly missed.
We will greatly miss Pat but we are lucky to have someone with the qualities of Chacku now leading the MHA in Monroe, Ontario, Livingston and Wyoming Counties.
Rochester teen who tried to overdose at 15 grows up to lead Mental Health Association
Patti Singer, @PattiSingerRoc Published 6:20 a.m. ET March 9, 2018
At 8 years old, Chacku Mathai was using drugs.
At 15, he supplied some other kids at the same time he intentionally overdosed to try to kill himself. He didn’t think anyone would save him, but they did.
A year later, Mathai talked to kids not much younger than he about the bullying and beatings they dealt out or dealt with — and how they coped.
At 47, Mathai brings his personal and professional experience with mental health and addiction to his new job as president and chief executive officer of the Mental Health Association. The nonprofit served more than 10,000 people in Monroe, Ontario, Livingston and Wyoming counties in 2017, through its education and training, life skills, creative, peer and other support programs. People do not need a diagnosis or to have insurance to participate in most programs.
“The Mental Health Association is a place where we say ‘find wellness,’” he said. “Wellness is not the absence of illness. Wellness are things you want in your life. Wellness are feelings. How do you want to feel and what do you have to believe in order to feel that way?”
Mathai leaves the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Arlington, Virginia, to succeed Patricia Woods, who founded the organization 34 years ago.
Mathai’s odyssey through his own mental health and addiction started shortly after his family came to Rochester in the early 1970s.
He said his dark skin made him first a curiosity and then a target for other kids and adults who told him to go back where he came from. He changed schools several times. He felt unsafe everywhere and lost trust in everyone, including his parents. For years, he said, he could not meet his mother’s eyes while he ate.
He heard voices and saw images. He struggled in school, yet when he was 14, toured Spain with his high school orchestra.
“I was a handful,” he said.
He was hospitalized as his parents tried to find help. His father heard about a clubhouse in Brighton to give kids coming out of drug rehab a safe place. Mathai found respite playing pool and foosball. He said he’s still friends with the kid who gave him a smile on that first day.
Mathai, who said he monitors how he is feeling and continues a variety of practices that boost his wellness, talked about mental health in the context of current headlines:
Why is mental health getting attention now?
Unfortunately because of shootings. We’re constantly trying to explain how that’s a myth, that people are dangerous because they have a mental illness. I also don’t want to discount the fact that everyone has to take some time to talk about stuff when shooting occurs. Not like wash your hands and say, ‘That’s not us.’ When a community like the NRA says it’s mental illness to get it off the conversation about guns, … I do want to say, ‘Hey, don’t make it about mental illness because you’re also sending the wrong message there.’ Now even veterans who might want to continue hunting are not going to go seek help. They’re perceived as being violent by the very nature of having a PTSD diagnosis. … The worry that I have is that people won’t reach out for the help that they could get if they’re perceived dangerous. That’s why that narrative is so problematic. Where does that come from?
It’s kind of a natural human inclination to want to believe something’s wrong with somebody to do atrocious things. I don’t think it’s something malicious in people’s minds to blame us for something. People want an explanation. It’s fair to wonder about that. But mental health has always been the bucket to throw things into that you couldn’t explain. Should mental health and mental illness be in the same paragraph?
People like to associate illness with dangerousness. That’s why it ends up in the news. … Those of us who’ve been diagnosed with serious and persistent mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. … Ninety-six percent of the violence in all of society, including gun violence, is not attributable to any mental illness. Just because somebody has a history of mental illness does not make the action because of the mental illness. … People who have researched this say there is no way to prevent violence with mental health services. … When a shooting occurs, people want to know, if we fix mental illness, we’ll reduce violence. No one is saying adding mental health services is a bad idea. … The way we do it is important. The connection to violence is only going to discourage a young person like me who is hearing voices to tell anybody in a way that’s meaningful.
So what is mental health?
Mental health is a way to open the door to conversations about what’s important to people. … Making decisions for my life, being in control of things in my life, belonging, that I have something to offer the community.… What makes me feel competent is different from what makes you feel competent.
Do you think society struggles with the notion of individuality?
There’s a tendency to want people to be normal, to start defining what normal is. So when some of us are different in any way there’s a degree to which that desire to let me be who I am changes. The need to be individualized competes with … the ability to operate as a community. Why is “stigma” often used with mental illness?
What the word is really about is discrimination, social exclusion. People really struggle with feeling like when I have a mental health issue, has my community supported me or have I been cast out?
Are there any measures, like blood pressure or cholesterol, for mental health?
One of the problems is we used a medical framework. In mental health, unfortunately, it’s inadequate to have the larger conversation. The larger conversation is sociological, cultural. Are there measures? They’re more human development … autonomy, belonging, competence.