Prior to the spring of 2010, I had not given much thought to mental health, mental illness, or anything in between. Sure, my husband, Todd, and I both had relatives with “mental health issues” and Todd had experienced situational depression in grad school (who hasn’t?). But for the most part, we didn’t think about it.
We were fine.
In fact, we were more than fine according to all mainstream standards of success. Todd had landed his dream job teaching religious studies at a small liberal arts college. I worked non-stop as a top executive at a software company putting us in the top 5%. Our only daughter, Rebecka, performed well at school, had lots of friends, and was generally pleasant—unusual for 13-year-olds, I hear.
Yes, we were fine.
So when Rebecka one sunny April day told me over pedicures that she was feeling depressed, I had a really difficult time taking it seriously. Depressed? What? She didn’t seem depressed. On the contrary, she was quite the social butterfly. I thought people who were depressed spent most of their time in the fetal position in a dark room (or on the shower floor).
“I cry in the bathroom sometimes,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
After talking about this for a while, I asked her to let me know the next time she felt sad so we could work through it together. Then we moved on to other topics.
Fast forward to May and I noticed one day that Rebecka had slimmed down quite a bit. Perhaps even a bit more than a normal teen growth spurt would cause. I casually mentioned it to her and she walked into the bathroom to step on the scale. She came back with a semi-shocked look on her face. She had lost twenty pounds!
I knew she had a good friend who had been diagnosed with anorexia, and the next question just slipped out: “Do you think you may be anorexic?” I asked. “No, I haven’t been trying to lose weight,” she said. Nevertheless, the very next day, I received a phone call from the anorexic friend’s mother. She made me so worried I immediately made a doctor’s appointment for Rebecka.
The doctor homed in on her depression more than the weight loss and suggested that she see a therapist or a psychiatrist. We voted to start with therapy (seemed less serious). By the time June rolled around, the therapist suggested we “kick-start” the therapy process with medication. Really? Thus, Rebecka’s pediatrician handed Rebecka a piece of paper that would change our lives forever.
It was a prescription for Zoloft.
Over the course of the summer, Zoloft turned into Prozac, and just as school was about to start again, Rebecka started hallucinating and became suicidal. Immediate hospitalization followed and with it the addition of an antipsychotic (Risperdal) and an additional prescription to deal with known side effects of the antipsychotic. This was the beginning of a year of hospitalizations and heartache. Inpatient, outpatient, inpatient, outpatient. A never-ending vicious circle. More medications. Different medications. Higher dosage. Lower dosage.
We were thrown headfirst into a world we didn’t want to know anything about. Mental illness. Stigma. Psychotropics. Medication management. Bipolar. Eating disorders. Anxiety. BPD. CBT.
And through all of this, no therapist sat us down to ask, “How are things at home?” “What can we do differently in Rebecka’s environment to make her feel better?” There was no glimmer of hope. No indication that this might be temporary distress. Situational. Part of growing up. Rather, it all felt very permanent. And on the worst days, we firmly believed that our only child would live in our basement indefinitely.
We thought we were fine. But in reality, we were not. Indeed, when I look in the rearview mirror, I realize we weren’t fine at all. I was a workaholic and also situationally depressed due to work-related stress and dissonance between my job and my value system. Todd was working in a small town four hours away and coming home on the weekends. Our future living situation was uncertain, because Todd’s teaching position at the time was not permanent. Add puberty to that.
So not really fine at all.
Not until the shit hit the fan and Rebecka was hospitalized for the eighth time did the course of our lives change again. When things couldn’t get any worse, Dr. Robert Shedinger, author of Radically Open and a colleague and friend, handed us a copy of Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic. Todd and I read it out loud to each other during the long drive to the nearest in-state psychiatric hospital almost two hours away.
We read the stories and recognized our daughter. Yep, she had become “bipolar” after starting anti-depressants. Yep, she had gained fifty pounds on Zyprexa. Yep. Yep. Yep. We were shocked to learn the truth about modern psychiatry and Big Pharma and angered to read about the dire consequences for millions of people.
It was enough for us to ask the attending psychiatrist to discontinue Rebecka’s psychotropic medications—even though we had just received a bleak psychological evaluation, which stated:
“Rebecka’s test results reveal a very serious acute psychiatric disturbance and also raise concern about the presence of problematic personality traits and relationship behaviors. She seems to be both very depressed and highly anxious. . . . She seems to ruminate about her many perceived faults and failures. She offers that she hates herself and may believe that she is deserving of punishment.”
Asking the psychiatrist to discontinue medication was one of our bravest moments. It went against everything doctors had told us over the past twelve months—against Rebecka’s regular psychiatrist’s vehement opposition (“You can come back when it doesn’t work.”). It went against what we heard repeatedly in the media and in pop culture. It went against what we saw in the advertisements during the evening news.
And it was the turning point in Rebecka’s journey toward optimal mental health.
Of course, we all had some work to do to restore her (and our own) mental health. She spent a total of six weeks at the Mayo Clinic’s eating disorder program. Todd and I reduced our pressures on her by focusing less on school and more on wellness. She attended a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills group for adolescents, which helped her learn coping skills. I quit my job and started consulting, so I could be available when Rebecka came home from school (and to reduce my own stress). She found a sense of purpose. (The list goes on.)
By the spring of 2012, the recovery process was complete. Sassy, opinionated, funny Rebecka was back.
And we lived happily ever after. The end.
Well, this could have been the end of the story. However, this experience had shaken my foundation. I would never look at the world through my former naive lenses. I knew I had to tell our story to empower other parents to ask questions, trust their instincts, and, most importantly, remain hopeful. No psychiatrist or doctor ever gave us hope that Rebecka would recover fully. Not until we turned to the Mayo Clinic, after losing a year of her life to psychotropics, did we hear words of hope—from a brilliant psychologist. This hope allowed us to imagine a brighter future and move toward recovery.
So I started writing. It was therapeutic and painful all at once. I outlined a book, Her Lost Year, with four parts. The first two parts would be our story, including reflections by Rebecka. The third part would discuss what we learned about modern psychiatry and the pharmaceutical industry. The final part would provide alternative approaches to restoring mental health in kids and teens. I would cover everything from getting enough sleep to family therapy to mindfulness. Everything I knew from experience and research—distilled down and accessible to all parents.
That was going to be it. And it was going to be a great book. Super helpful.
However, the more I read and the more I learned about the mental health crisis, especially related to our young people, the more I realized I couldn’t stop there. It wasn’t sufficient.
One pesky question kept surfacing in my brain:
Why are so many children and teens distressed? Why does a bright, popular, beautiful 13-year-old girl with highly educated parents and a comfortable home become so distressed that it warrants medical intervention? Why does this same girl come to the conclusion that her life has no purpose—that life is not worth living? Why are so many children “disruptive” at school? Why do droves of teens engage in self-harm? Why do so many young people think about suicide? Why do they not feel comfortable in their own skin?
And what can we do about it?
My initial reaction was to sue the pharmaceutical companies. But we’ve been there, done that. These companies are not suffering as a consequence. No, I decided. I want to work from the bottom up to raise resilient, mentally healthy kids in a society that doesn’t medicalize the human experience—a society that values the cues our competent children send us. Steven Epperson stated well this need in a recent MIA post.
“We need a nuanced, humanistic, non-pharmaceutical industry influenced, truly well-informed curriculum for schools, community centres and religious organizations that provides education to children, youth and their parents about the spectrum of human experience, life transitions, and ways in which boyhood (!), distress, unusual experiences and stress can be resiliently handled.”
Yes, we need to nurture children’s innate resilience, but we also need to look beyond the individual and educational programs.
We need to radically change our society so that it is designed to optimize mental health.
It all goes together, folks. Mental health is so much bigger than an individual issue. It is a community issue. It is an environmental issue. It is a moral issue. It is a political issue. We medicate kids to adapt them to their surroundings (think public school or an unstable home). But we don’t talk much about adapting the surroundings to the kids. Too expensive. Too difficult. Not enough profit involved. Maybe we’re not even sure how.
Our children’s distress (along with climate change, daily loss of species, ongoing wars, food insecurity, etc.) is a signal that something is fundamentally wrong with how we live in this world. We can do all the mindfulness meditation and yoga we want (and these are very helpful practices!), but unless we change the system—in a big way—our kids will continue to suffer.
Thus, I added a fifth part to the book. It’s all about how we can optimize children’s mental health through social change. It covers consumerism, politics, parenting, and education. Scratches the surface, really. But we have to start somewhere. We must transition from our competitive, individualistic way of life to a cooperative community model—a society where children (and adults!) can be themselves, feel supported and heard, embrace the human experience, contribute to the common good, connect, create, and thrive.
Will you join me in this transition? It’s time.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.