DMHAS: OOC Message 5.5.06

Message from the Office Of the Commissioner
May 5, 2006

{Commissioner Kirk}
by Thomas A. Kirk, Jr., Ph.D., Commissioner

Karen Kangas—A True Champion and Giant 

Karen Kangas, one of the most effective and influential individuals ever in Connecticut’s public/private healthcare system for persons with a mental illness and/or substance use disorder, is retiring from state service as of May 1. What a positive impact she has had for so many of us as individuals and peers…what an extraordinary difference she has made in Connecticut, and in the nation, for the field of mental health and substance abuse and the individuals and families who have experienced these illnesses.     

For those of us who have had the pleasure of working with Karen over the years, the notion of her “retiring” seems hard to believe. As a nationally recognized leader in the mental health field, Karen is, and always will be, a powerful educator with a compelling message of hope and recovery.  Though officially leaving her state position, I imagine that Karen will never “retire” from her mission of fighting stigma and promoting the recovery of people with psychiatric disabilities and substance use disorders. I still expect to see her sitting at a table at Borders or at Starbucks providing a comforting touch of support and counsel to some person or family member being challenged by illness and negotiating “the system.” That’s who she is. That will not end with retirement.     

Throughout her 19-year career, from her days at Fairfield Hills Hospital to her present position in the Commissioner’s Executive Group at the Office of the Commissioner, Karen has shown us that having a disability doesn’t mean living in a “disabled” way.  She has taught us from her own personal struggles with mental illness that recovery is always within reach despite the temporary setbacks and obstacles of everyday living.

{Karen A. Kangas}

Karen A. Kangas, Ed.D.
Director of Community Education

Since late 2000, there have been almost 115 Messages from the Office of the Commissioner. Consider the words of some Karen authored. They say much about her as an individual as well as what she has meant to Connecticut and the Nation.  

“This is a message of celebration. I write this now as a member of the Commissioner’s Executive Group…significant because I am a person in recovery from mental illness and substance abuse who is fully disclosed and publicly vocal…a victory for advocacy in Connecticut. Advocacy is the force behind change, a passion borne of experience and pain.”  Advocacy Draws Change and Erases Stigma (Kangas, May 17, 2001) 

It has always been my mission to ‘bring the community’ to those people who are unable to leave the hospital, particularly at this time of year when our thoughts turn to visiting family and friends for the holidays.” Under Lock and Key (Kangas, November 25, 2004) 

“The use of the word recovery is a message of hope. It is not stating that everyone can be cured of their illness. Rather, the message is that many persons with a psychiatric disability or substance use disorder can reach a point of managing their illness…regain a better quality of life. They had lives before their mental illness or substance use set in. Many can recover the experience of living, volunteering, voting or otherwise contributing to their communities in meaningful ways. It does not happen overnight. That is why we sometimes say ‘we are in recovery.’ It is something we choose to work on, just like anyone else who has a serious illness…Disclosure may not be for everyone, but you can still be a good advocate by supporting those people who do tell their stories. It is your values, contributions and actions that truly matter and make you a valuable citizen.”  Disclosure (Kangas, January 24, 2002) 

Karen has touched countless people in a very personal and professional way. She regularly frequented our hospitals, residential and outpatient programs and clubhouses visiting people in recovery all over the state. She knows people by name, and was always a strong advocate for improving their lives. Karen knows how to connect with people, a gift that she effortlessly and generously applied. 

Karen also used her insight to teach our clinicians and other staff about recovery, helping them to understand that people receiving our services are people first.  Likewise, she has been effective in helping to shape policy as a member of my Commissioner’s Executive Group. A constant champion for people and recovery, she always reminded us that every decision we make affects people’s lives in a real way. 

Dr. Kangas has also achieved national recognition during her long and successful career. In 1993, she received the prestigious Clifford Beers Award in recognition of her efforts to help improve conditions for and attitudes toward people with mental illness. On a local level, Karen received the Roger Sherman Award in 1996 for her work in advancement of human rights in the State of Connecticut. In 1998, Advocacy Unlimited, Inc., a DMHAS-funded advocacy agency, created the Karen Kangas Excellence in Advocacy Award to be given yearly to an outstanding advocate.  

As she did in her career, Karen will no doubt continue to teach us in her retirement and spread her message of hope and compassion—that people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders can and do get better.   


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Content Last Modified on 4/26/2007 1:59:38 PM