About 300 attendees gathered at Abraxas High School for the fifth annual Community Alliance for Healthy Minds Forum on Saturday.
The free event offered information and resources to help individuals and families with mental illness.
Through the forum, Rancho Bernardo residents Rex and Connie Kennemer have helped spread awareness about mental illness and suicide prevention to Poway and surrounding communities. They created the nonprofit organization after they lost their son Todd to suicide more than five years ago. Their 25-year-old son had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Connie Kennemer explained to the crowd that she had “lost herself for a season” after her son died.
“It’s been a long trip, and I realized early on that there were no clear roadmaps,” she said. “I couldn’t call AAA for directions or a tow truck. My GPS system just didn’t work here. ...I wondered would I remain an open wound? I wondered, ‘Who am I now?’
“My new role is to simply be a good neighbor in the new community that I’ve been assigned to," she said. “My neighbors here are working hard, just like I am, to figure out what to do with our pain. We’re quick to pass on anything that we’ve learned. These are folks who reach out, who laugh, who smile, who dream again, who cry and aren’t ashamed of their emotions. What a fragile, but courageous neighborhood I’ve joined! I’m honored to live alongside these folks who are now my friends.”
The CAHM Forum, which began at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m., opened with a presentation by keynote speaker Sara Gilman, a licensed marriage and family therapist, who talked about stress.
After Gilman defined and explained stress—which she said is heightened because of the digital age—she demonstrated different breathing techniques to help achieve “heart rate coherence.” Heart rate coherence, she explained, is “a state when the heart, mind and emotions are in energetic alignment and cooperation. It is associated with 'a sustained positive emotion.'"
“You can be in charge of your heart rate variability,” Gilman said. “The more you train your heart, the more you will come from your heart in your day-to-day life. Sometimes the most important thing—in a whole day—is the rest that we take between two breaths.”
A first-time CAHM Forum attendee, who asked that we not use her name, said she learned a lot from the presentation.
“It’s within us to control stress, and we just have to realize it,” she said.
After the keynote address, attendees selected from a variety of breakout sessions to attend. The breakout sessions addressed a broad range of topics, including grief and loss, hope and healing, expression and communication, and more. Some sessions were geared toward youth and others were geared toward adults.
In one session led by representatives from Impact Young Adults, participants explored leadership and team roles in an exercise that used Nintendo Wii’s Mario Kart game. Some participants were "drivers" and others were "supporters."
"When we have that support, when we feel supported in our lives, we really feel like we can take on anything with more confidence," one of the presenters said.
In addition to the keynote address and breakout sessions, there were numerous resource booths in the outdoor resource fair.
Margaret Hurst Reese, author of the memoir, Runaway Mind: My Own Race with Bipolar Disorder, shared her experiences with booth visitors.
“The book talks of hope and how you can make it out there,” said Reese, who proudly talked about her husband and daughter. “It’s a story of hope for people with mental illness. It’s a success story.”
Her sister, Amy Kownacki, encouraged others to read the book.
“It’s an interesting take because it’s not only hearing from somebody who is bipolar but the family,” she said. “My mother, myself, her best friend, all contributed to the story. It tells you what the family goes through.”
Kickstart, a team of mental health professionals that treats youth and assists families in preventing psychosis, was among the other booths at the resource fair.
“I wanted to see some of the other organizations that we can partner up with,” said Brady Ferdig, Kickstart outreach coordinator. “It’s all about a big cause.”
Most attendees visited multiple booths to learn about community resources and take home informational brochures.
“I want to get more information on suicide prevention,” said a first-time attendee, who asked that we not use her name. “I had a friend who tried to commit suicide. I want to become more informed about certain things.”
This is the third year that Abraxas High School has hosted the forum.
“Abraxas is a school primarily to assist at-risk kids, kids that weren’t successful in the comprehensive high schools,” Principal Rudy Casciato said. “They come here for a second chance, and there’s a lot of reasons why they’re here. Some of them have issues with mental health that through Student Services and programs like this, they can get help.”
Although the event was free, donations were encouraged. Proceeds from the 2011 CAHM Forum will support at-risk individuals and families, as well as at-risk programs.
The Sheriff's Adolescent Group Adventure is among the programs at Abraxas that will benefit from funds raised. The SAGA program enables selected students to engage in team-building exercises at the Mataguay Scout Ranch.
“To have the community support Abraxas is important, and they need the funds,” said Marita Harmony, president of Soroptimist International of Poway.
Cathy Kosich, a student services specialist and student council coordinator at Abraxas, said she was pleased with the turnout.
“Through the efforts of this community coming together to provide information regarding mental health issues, we’re hoping to prevent any of the violence and events that have happened in other areas,” Kosich said. “We’re focused on prevention.”