My husband and I raised a seemingly happy, healthy, and talented son, who flourished throughout his childhood until his freshman year of college. Beneath his tall, handsome, athletic, easy-going exterior was constant emotional turmoil. To everyone else, he was called the “golden boy” and it seemed like he had it all, but inside he was struggling with crippling swings of anxiety and depression. As he was entering the University with exceptional grades and a D-1 Athletic Scholarship, we thought we had equipped him with the best tools we could give him to become a “successful” adult. In hindsight, there were indications that our son was battling the onset of bipolar disorder, and that we, as a family, lacked the mental health knowledge that we would eventually need. Thankfully, we had a very strong family unit: father, mother, son and daughter that always had open communication, strongly advocated for each other, and unconditional love for one another. Unfortunately, all of this didn’t guarantee that our family would be shielded from a disease that almost took our son’s life. Even though we were thrown into uncharted territory, and had to take the “learn as you go” approach, I do believe that through some very dark times, the trust that we had built was key in the eventual outcome of seeking help and recovery. Now that our son is a young adult, working hard to piece his life back together, I would like to share our experiences along our journey in hopes that it may help other families during theirs.
Beware of Mis-Diagnosed Learning Disorders:
High-school counselors called us in for a family meeting with concerns that our son may have ‘Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder’ (ADHD). At the time, we considered this “hysteria” and “over-diagnosing”. Therefore, we took our time, did some research, spoke with other professionals, and as a family decided to not medicate but to closely watch his symptoms. In hindsight, we still believe it was the right decision. We have since learned that medications to treat ADHD or depression, unfortunately, can bring the early onset of a ‘psychotic episode’ (if one has an underlying mental illness). I point this out not to discount the legitimacy of learning disorders but merely to encourage families to educate themselves about mental health. I worry that when educational counselors and teachers call in families with concerns of a child having a learning disability that we aren’t always looking at the “complete picture.” In the way that our school system feels strongly about requiring vaccinations and annual physicals, I feel strongly that it is essential to add a mental health component to that annual physical.
The Signs of “Self-Medicating”:
As I said earlier, we sent both of our kids off to Universities with all of the tools we thought they would need to succeed. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the facts or education to know that when our son seemed to derail from his goals because of “excessive partying,” this was a sign that he was “self-medicating” the onset of a mental illness. Our son was unknowingly using alcohol to battle severe depression, along with marijuana to counter his mania. We struggled trying to understand why he would jeopardize his scholarship and academic career after how hard he had worked for them. What we later found out, and not until we were in the throws of his hospitalizations and treatment programs, was the impact of the biochemical imbalance that occurs with his illness. As parents, we have to walk that fine-line of letting our kids leave the nest to grow on their own and keep tabs on what could be warning signs of a much bigger problem. A classic sign, like in our son’s case, was binge drinking to the point of passing out. In most cases, the onset of a mental illness shows itself between the teenage years up until the mid 20’s. This is when our kids like to push the boundaries and experiment with drugs and alcohol. 1 out of 10 people in the U.S. will develop the disease of addiction after the age of 12, and 1 out of 3 people affected by the disease of addiction have a co-occurring mental illness. I want parents to know that while it may seem “normal” for college kids to experiment and push boundaries, sometimes there are deeper issues, and kids might be “self-medicating” in order to attempt to gain control of their feelings.
The Treatment for Addiction is Different than Mental Illness:
“Tough love” from family and friends for people who are struggling with addiction can be important in them seeking sobriety. However, when someone is having a “mental episode” (mania or depression), a different approach may be needed. In both cases, the individual needs to make the decision for themselves that they need the help, but someone who is in the swing of a ‘psychotic episode’ is experiencing delusional thinking. The biochemicals in their brain aren’t allowing them to think rationally. At first sight, your loved one can appear to be “high” but in actuality, they might be completely substance free. It can be so confusing when you’re dealing with two separate illnesses at the same time, like in our son’s case: his disorder initially presented itself as addiction. In hind-sight, we now recognize that our son’s grandiose thinking, rapid speech, and hyper sexuality (opposite of his “normal” behavior) were all classic signs of mania. The behavior of a person ‘intoxicated’ and a person having an ‘episode’ can look similar, but this is when family or friends who are familiar with their “baseline” need to intervene and make sure their loved one gets immediate medical attention.
After four agonizing years of our son going through multiple hospitalizations and eight rehab centers, we have yet to find a true ‘Dual-Diagnosis: Substance Abuse and Mental Illness’ facility. A sad and nearly fatal incident was when our son, who was in a “highly reputable” and we feel, well-intentioned “dual-diagnosis facility,” was discharged and kicked out into the street for “non-compliant behavior,” when in reality, he was having a manic episode. The rehab center acted appropriately if (in their view) it had been “drug seeking behavior,” but this was not the case with our son. A true mental health facility would have had him see a doctor immediately to administer medication in order to stabilize his condition. Because his manic episode was allowed to spiral out of control, he ended up in an ICU, having to be resuscitated from alcohol poisoning. Unfortunately, as of now, our medical field has divided treatment for addiction and mental illness, and, quite frankly, there is very little funding for the mental health side. This has created a situation where the money lies in “addiction treatment”, and the facilities can get additional funding if they meet the “dual diagnosis” standard. The only criteria to qualify their facility, is if they provide the client the opportunity to see a psychiatrist once a month, when in actuality, what is necessary is an on-call psychiatrist, weekly psychotherapy, nurse administered medication compliance, and a staff trained and experienced in mental health. This means the responsibility to seek out the appropriate treatment center lies in your hands! Do your research to make sure that the facility is primarily a mental health treatment center. Be prepared to appeal to your insurance company and fight for an “adequate facility”. Advocate for your loved one!
Trial and Error:
1 in 4 people will be affected by a mental illness in the course of their lifetime. The biggest advice I can give loved ones who are supporting someone navigating a newly diagnosed mental illness is: patience, patience, patience. It can take up to a year for the brain to recover from neurological damage of a single ‘manic or depressive episode,’ so prevention of multiple episodes is crucial. Medical professionals will need to evaluate your loved one for an extended period of time in order to give a proper diagnoses. It will then take some frustrating “trials and errors” to find a successful combination of medications and psychotherapy. Once a balance of medication, therapy, and healthy living has been achieved, the work begins… Setting up a support system, being “med compliant,” and on-going communication with a psychiatrist is essential. Also, remember as the biochemicals in the body naturally change, the medications may also require adjustment. As much as I wish there was some “magic pill” to make it all go away, there just isn’t. This is a lifestyle adjustment for the whole family, and the sooner you can accept that, the sooner you and your loved one will heal and begin to flourish.
Stay the Course:
When someone is diagnosed with an illness like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s, we immediately feel compassion for his or her struggle. The latest research proves that the five major mental illnesses – depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and autism are genetic. It just happens to affect the brain instead of another organ. Be sure to keep a calm attitude and attentive approach to your loved one’s needs. You are going to have to learn to separate your loved one’s “rational thinking” from their “biochemically induced delusional thinking.” Remember that even though people in the medical profession have good intentions, they don’t know your loved one the way you do. Family, friends, and significant others are the ones that know his or her “baseline.” What is their “normal” behavior? This is an essential key to the doctors’ ability to evaluate what medications and / or therapies are working. Working closely together with your loved one and their ‘treatment team’ will be essential in piecing together a rhythm that will eventually emerge. It is imperative to establish routines, and it is just as important to avoid triggers.
The Importance of Healthy Living:
As parents, we knew that sleep and exercise were essential to our family’s health, but we didn’t necessarily know how important they were to keep mood swings stable. In some people, like our son, not getting enough sleep can trigger mania. In fact, if you notice your loved one getting less and less sleep, it’s a strong indication they may be entering a manic phase. On the other end of the spectrum, regular exercise has proven to combat our son’s depression. We also knew that a good diet was needed for our bodies’ overall health, but like most people, we didn’t necessarily know the importance of eating specific “brain healthy” foods. We raised our kids with a focus on balance, structure, and routine, and even though we were sometimes accused of being the “strictest parents in town” by our children, we have since learned that these are key elements in not only the recovery of addiction but also maintaining mental stability. In addition to his medication, our son has found consistent ‘Transcendental Meditation’ practice to be extremely helpful for his mental stabilization. Finding the right form of meditation for the entire family can be very helpful.
In closing, I feel that the media can tend to sensationalize and only report the very dramatic and tragic events surrounding mental illness. I choose to focus on the many, many success stories. It is possible and very common to overcome and manage a mental illness. There isn’t any one “type” of person that it can affect; it doesn’t discriminate. You would be shocked at how many extremely successful individuals are not “suffering from”, but “living with” a disorder. Although, it is important to accept a diagnosis and work towards recovery, a label doesn’t solely define anyone. I hope to be joined by many others to work together to erase the stigma around mental illness and have an open and brave conversation about how important mental health is for everyone!
Thank you for allowing me to share my story,
Ambassador, Bring Change 2 Mind