Dr. Randa Kutob "I don't know too many families who are untouched" by mental illness. A.E. Araiza/Arizona Daily Star

Dr. Randa Kutob spends much of her time teaching future doctors at the University of Arizona. Across town in another classroom, a different group of students is teaching her.

Each has a serious mental illness, and she finds them a pretty amazing bunch.

"The questions they ask are as good as the ones I get from my medical students," said Kutob, 46, who in 2007 was named one of America's best doctors.

"A lot of their stories are not happy ones. But the fact they are here asking questions and trying to help themselves, it's really inspiring."

These students are part of a pioneering program called Camp Wellness. It offers patients in the state Medicaid system eight weeks of classes in nutrition, healthy cooking, exercise and relaxation techniques, and other methods to promote physical and mental health.

Kutob is the program's staff physician, on top of being assistant medical professor at the UA and a family doctor at University Physicians Healthcare.

Having treated hundreds of Tucson families, Kutob already knew how common mental illness is.

"I don't know too many families who are untouched by it," she said.

But at Camp Wellness, she has the luxury of spending hours at a time with her charges, instead of the 15 minutes she typically has with someone at the doctor's office.

"Hearing people talk about their personal struggles has been eye-opening. You really get a sense of how these illnesses affect so many aspects of their lives."

The clientele of Camp Wellness includes nurses, teachers, Ph.D.s, office workers and others from an array of backgrounds, she said.

Often, their conditions are misunderstood even by loved ones.

"Family members will say, 'Why don't you just get over it and stop thinking like that?' They don't really understand that you can't 'just get over it.' "

Kutob is convinced mental illness could happen to anyone in any family. Even her own.

"My attitude now," she said, "is, you just never know."