Mental Illness: A Survivor's Story

A mental illness survivor, Carol Koji has endured electric shock treatment, been Baker-Acted, divorced, heard voices, and has had arrests.

 Carol Koji

Carol Koji

In 1978, Carol Koji was one of the first people Baker-Acted in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  At the time she had just relocated to the state from Long Island with her husband and three young sons.  A physician had misdiagnosed her, prescribed valium instead of a proper medication, and sent her home.  It wasn’t until 2007 that a psychiatrist rightly diagnosed Carol as bi-polar with schizoaffective disorder.

A mental illness survivor at age 64, Carol has been Baker-Acted 16 times, attempted suicide, had electric shock treatment (1980s) and been twice arrested on misdemeanors.  She has heard voices, had paranoia, been divorced, and had her children taken away from her.  Due to an overdosing of medication, she lost all of her teeth after developing gum disease.  She states that she, “lost her mind.” Yet, Carol persevered and raised her sons as a single mother without child support.

Many of these problems could have been adverted if Carol had received proper treatment at the beginning of her illness.After her brief stay at Hollywood Pavilion, her husband moved the family back home to New York.  Carol received no follow up care and ended up in a mental health ward again.  Long-term continued care as an outpatient with a counselor or therapist and case manager are keys to recovery and stability.  With cognitive therapy, the patient can begin to recognize wrong patterns of thinking, alter them, and change her lifestyle. She will also learn to identify her triggers and avoid them.  For Carol, this means avoiding alcohol, cigarettes, and compliancy of medication.  When Carol remained on her medication, she did well.  Medication and therapy work together.

One of the difficulties of mental illness is the prescribing of the correct medication for the individual.  What works for one person may not work for another.  In women with mental illness, the onset of perimenopause will cause hormone changes, affecting brain chemistry as well.

The person with a mental illness often has no idea of his or her state of mind because it is so subjective, until he or she arrives at a hospital for help.  This is a shock.  Acceptance of the situation is key.In 2013 after several national gun-violence incidents, President Obama called for national Mental Health First Aid training. (National Council for Behavioral Health)

“The Mental Health First Aid Act of 2013 (S. 153/H.R. 274) authorizes $20 million in grants to fund Mental Health First Aid training programs around the country. Participants would be trained in:

Recognizing the symptoms of common mental illnesses and addiction disorders.   

De-escalating crisis situations safely.

Initiating timely referral to mental health and substance abuse resources available in the community.”

Training should include police officers, emergency rescue personnel, teachers and any other necessary individuals.

Signs of immediate attention being needed include: thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, not eating, not sleeping, paranoia, rampages, and hearing voices.  Carol Koji adds, “being afraid in the house alone, giving your things away, not answering the phone at all, listening to the same song over and over, and throwing important items away.”

Today Carol Koji is the mother of three grown sons and five grandchildren, all free of any signs of mental illness. 

Carol is able to see the history of mental illness in her own life for 36 years.  Genetic factors played a role, as did stress. When asked what advice she would give to someone else at the beginning of mental illness, Carol states this:·         

  • Don’t fight it, and don’t blame others.
  • To survive, I learned that I had to take medication.         
  • Insist on the right help. Get therapy and medication. You need to get to the bottom of the problem.         
  • Don’t say, “I can’t work.”  Volunteer or work in some way.         
  • Go to church.         
  • Love your children and never give up on them.

Carol also has a determined attitude to continue on.  She has held a job and been a volunteer at Lyngate Park and the Port St. Lucie Library.  She also pays her own rent, writes poetry and attends St. Lucie Catholic Church. Her faith was very much needed in recovery. During Carol’s last 21 years, she has received services from New Horizons, located in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Serving four counties and the Treasure Coast area for 55 years, the facility cares for 11,400 patients yearly.  Many patients are indigent (87%), yet receive psychiatric, primary and medicinal care.  With a shortage of beds for children nationwide, New Horizons is one of the few to offer 20 beds in their children’s unit.  The primary focus is on the patient with family counseling included, giving “wrap around care” which addresses the cause of the illness. Carol Koji states, “New Horizons saved my life.”

New Horizons recognizes the need for early intervention and signed on to train St. Lucie County teachers in Mental Health First Aid.  They are one of the few organizations advocating this new President-endorsed program.

Each year, one in four adults, approximately 61.5 million Americans, experiences mental illness.  One in 17 or 13.6 million live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.  Yet, only 40% of adults and 50% of youth (8-15) received mental health services. (NAMI)

Lack of help is due to ignorance, denial and illegitimate social stigma.

Carol Koji is a hometown hero because she has overcome what few do, and she has openly told her story so that others might have hope, see the early signs and receive help.  “There is no shame,” she ends.

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