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Mental illness looks like you and me.

I just finished reading Resilience, by Jessie Close.  She is completely raw in her description of a lifelong battle with severe Bipolar Disorder.  As she takes you on her journey through years of unchecked, undiagnosed mayhem caused by her mental illness and alcoholism, you will cringe and cry.


The fact is though, mental illness without help is like a prison sentence.  It condemns its sufferer to broken relationships, broken dreams, continuous disruption, and continuous discomfort.  I still feel I’m phrasing it lightly.


She has many objectives in writing the story of her life.  Aside from the likely cathartic effects of viewing her life through a medicated, stable lens, she has things she wants from us as the readers.  She wants us to understand that the stigma associated with mental illness is excruciating.  She wants us to know she is not a leper.  She wants us to know she still needs compassion, love and friendship.  It’s our cultural norm to ignore and avoid “odd” people.  She wants us to realize someone with a mental illness is still a someone.  She wants us to know that that someone has a family, a history, hopes and trials just as you and I do.


During my interning years I worked at College Hospital in Costa Mesa.  It is a locked psychiatric facility.  During the first months I was afraid.  I didn’t understand how to interact with people who were not responding to normal social cues.  I didn’t know how to anticipate the next move of someone suffering from psychosis.  Eventually though I came to love that job.  The staff had a sincere affection for the patients that was contagious.  Once I settled down, I realized these are people who are scared and overwhelmed.  All they need is someone who can sit with them and treat them like they’re human.


The irony was never lost on me that the staff inside a locked mental hospital were more capable of treating the mentally ill like humans than was the outside world.  I suppose it’s just like Jessie Close writes in her book where she tells us how exposure and time spent with the mentally ill breaks down our incorrect suppositions.  Like any misguided prejudice we have (and like it or not, we all have some), they are stripped away when we spend time with the people we incorrectly judge.


In the outpatient counseling practice I now run, we have found we are often the first stopping point for a teenager trying to understand what is going on with him or her.  There have been countless cases where a parent has called because his son or daughter is acting differently, engaging in risky behaviors, or “just doesn’t feel right.”  It can be an enormous challenge to pinpoint a diagnosis quickly because as Jessie Close explains, mental illness is “like a stew.”  This means many symptoms and disorders overlap.


Recognizing an underlying mental illness for misguided behavior and thoughts is one of the most important things towards healing.  You almost always need a professional to help with this process.  Even for the professional it can be difficult since there are no clear medical tests to diagnose.


If you suspect your teen might be facing a burgeoning mental illness, don’t wait to seek help.


Helping teens grow and families improve connection,

Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT