Putting baby locks on the kitchen cabinets to protect my toddler was one thing, but locking away the steak knives from my 7-year-old was not something I ever imagined would be necessary. I also never imagined that I would need to use my skills as a psychiatric nurse on my own child.
When my youngest son turned four, my husband and I began noticing behaviors that were foreign to us. He had become unusually aggressive; having uncontrollable temper tantrums in the grocery store aisle, throwing toys across the room at his brothers, and kicking me at the slightest parental control. Once a gregarious, outgoing child, he had become fearful, frightened to go to school, afraid to be in his room alone, or afraid to go outside to play. He now shunned the beach because the sand bothered his toes. In the summer he wore winter clothes, complaining he was cold. The inside labels on his shirt and seams on his socks sent him into fits of rage.
Over the next three and a half years, we saw five psychiatrists, each offering a different diagnosis. Finally, after being treated with an anti-depressant, he experienced a full-blown manic episode and was ultimately diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder.
In addition to dealing with my son's diagnosis, I found very little support for my family or myself. I began talking with other moms at the playground, explaining why my son was different and what his aberrant behaviors meant. We talked openly and honestly about it and encouraged him to do so as well.
In the early years, our openness came back to haunt us. Parents whispered about him at t-ball games, no one invited him to birthday parties, sleepovers or play dates. The children on the playground called him names like psycho, looney head and mental case. The boys taunted him and told him to go back to the mental hospital (even though he'd actually never been at one). Each day when I picked him up from school, he would shuffle over to the car with his head hanging down, telling me of yet another example of the bullying he had endured.
I wanted so badly for him to fit in, for the other kids to understand him and to accept him for who he was. After all, the children with diabetes or other physical illnesses were not excluded. Only those with mental illnesses were. I didn't want my son to grow up ashamed.
Today, our son is 21 and he will tell you the worst part of his illness is the stigma. Why do we as a society stigmatize our friends, family, and others by branding them with a mark of disgrace? According to Dr. Thomas Jensen, a psychiatrist specializing in general and neuropsychiatry treating children, adolescents and adults, "The stigma associated with bipolar disorder can cause patients to conceal their diagnosis, experience additional anxiety, discontinue treatment, or withdraw from family and friends, which can lead to poor treatment outcomes related to noncompliance; social isolation and worsening depression; and the undermining of self esteem."
And let's not be fooled, bipolar disorder, along with other mental health disorders, can strike anyone. We need to help everyone understand that bipolar disorder is a disease, just like any other disease, that can be treated. According to Dr. Jensen, "Mental illness knows no age limits, economic status, race, creed or color. I treat every walk of life including highly successful business people, attorneys and physicians."
Approximately one in four experience a mental health disorder in any given year, and nearly half of Americans will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lifetime. It is therefore likely that you or someone you know has or will experience a psychological problem, and reducing the stigma will help them cope and treat their mental health disorders.
We can all play a role in eliminating the stigma around bipolar disorder and mental illness. Courageous individuals, like actress and producer Rene Russo, have stepped forward to show others with bipolar disorder that they are not alone. Will you help put a stop to the stigma?
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.