My bipolar II disorder has had me juggling life with grueling periods of exhaustion that have lasted weeks and months, followed by whirlwind periods of glee where a walk around the block have turned into an obsessive desire to run a half marathon. Dragging myself up to my bed, pulling my heavy body one concrete foot at a time, up each step; gripping the railing, praying I don't lose the tug of war when a sudden bout of manic energy grips my hand and skips with me through one craft store then the other seeking the perfect accessories for my newfound love of scrapbooking, which I already know will last as long as it takes me to spend all of my last paycheck. Bipolar is emotional extremism.
And while I've been drowning in the excess that is my life, I have assumed everyone could see it. My children have commented that I "sleep all the time." Before the bipolar disorder was diagnosed, what was considered to be Major Depressive Disorder, was openly discussed when my smaller kids would crawl into bed with me, and ask me when I was going to get better. I had no answers, only more tears. My 13-year-old daughter had spent many times nestled in my arms, inquiring as to the nature of my sadness while I explained that I was sick. Although they lurk behind the medicated areas of my brain, the bouts of insanity sit and wait for me to forget to take the orange and white pills. Or worse, they rub their sharp claws together in anticipation of the moment those uppers and downers won't work at all.
Although it's not suppertime conversation, my mental illness is not hidden in our home. I'll admit I have seen my 19-year-old cringe at the mention of an appointment I have with my psychiatrist; but honestly, I cringe too. But complete fear spread through my veins as my daughter and I, together on an outing, saw an attractive blonde boy nearby and she commented, "This is awkward." "What's awkward?" "That blonde guy. He was suicidal, then he left our school." "How do you know he was suicidal?" I asked. "Because he told me and my friend. We thought he was weird." Despite the common knowledge that I was depressed, it has never been discussed that I have had suicidal tendencies because a) I thought it would be too disturbing for children to know and b) I'm ashamed that I have no control over these sudden murky thoughts of death.
All this time I've been advocating to end the stigma associated with mental illness, and yet, in my own home it's a topic I speak of only when the TV is blaring and the true consequences of my disease are muffled by the sound of America's Got Talent. Unfortunately, my hypocrisy is aligned with that of the school system which, although does promote it's fair share of anti-bullying campaigns, it does fail to expand upon resulting mental anguish to those who have suffered at the hands of their aggressors.
And it's not only about those who have been bullied. In Canada, one in five students in the average classroom will suffer from a mental disorder. With depression and anxiety as predominant factors plaguing students in grades 9-12, suicide is proving to be the greatest form of emotional reprieve from the agony of mental illness as shown by statistics that suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth 16-24 years of age.
Stomping out the stigma of mental illness would be more effective if begun in the home at an early age, and in the schools, where education about the various kinds of mental illnesses and their respective symptoms could easily become as common place as sex ed. The consequence of keeping our children in the dark about this topic not only means that more of them will contemplate and possibly attempt suicide, but more importantly, those seeking help, such as the boy who had approached my daughter about his suicidal thoughts, will not be treated with care and compassion, but rather will continue to be viewed as "awkward."
More importantly, however, keeping this topic taboo prevents those reaching out and actually verbalizing their thoughts from being taken seriously, being heard and receiving immediate intervention. All too often our children hear about those who have killed themselves and even though we consider this tragic, and mourn the passing of yet another one of our youth, we, as parents, adults and educators, do not explain the root of the act of the suicide. The thought stems from a mental illness that if left untreated -- and more often than not it is -- will present in adulthood. Seventy percent of adults living with some manifestation of mental illness say that it manifested before 18 years of age; fifty percent say that it occurred before the age of 14.
"Self-stigma occurs when people with mental illness and their families internalize society's negative attitudes towards them, leading to self-blame and low self-esteem," according to the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. I am one of the people contributing to this self-stigma by remaining silent to my children about the truth of my illness.
Arguably there is an appropriate age for these discussions, but a slow integration of the subject matter in the home, and proper education within the schools could and would cut down on the topic of mental illness as being one of shame, and one to hide from peers.
After all, educators are made aware of the students who are diabetic; it would stand to reason that those who suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar I, schizophrenia, OCD, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, but to name a few, could, in a supportive environment grow up to be oblivious to the stigma which becomes more crippling than the actual illness, adding to the increasing suicide statistics.
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