NYAPRS Note: While Chacku Mathai is new to many outside our world, our NYAPRS and greater NYS community have long known and loved him as one of our most impressive and accomplished champions. Chacku has recently moved from heading up the Star Center, a national SAMHSA TA center operated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to heading up the Mental Health Association in his home town of Rochester. Count on him to get a great force for recovery, rights, rehabilitation and community in Rochester and in New York! You’ll be hearing a lot more from and about his efforts in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, come welcome him back at our April 19-20th Executive Seminar as a panelist in our discussion “Taking Health Equity Head On.”
See the program at https://tinyurl.com/yaa8y2cc and registration link at https://rms.nyaprs.org/event/?page=CiviCRM&q=civicrm/event/register&reset=1&id=26
Rochester Teen Who Tried To Overdose At 15 Grows Up To Lead Mental Health Association
By Patti Singer Rochester Democrat & Chronicle 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 on Mental Illness 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 a 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.