A Mother’s Plea to Save Her Son from the Throes of Mental Illness
Signs to Watch for in Your Teen or Young Adult
Regardless of our kids’ trials and tribulations during childhood and into the early teen years, the furthest thing from any parent’s mind is that our young adult child might develop a serious mental illness. Unfortunately, it is an equal-opportunity disease that can strike even model kids who have rarely experienced a difficult day in their lives.
Just as kids are preparing to become independent adults is when serious mental illness (SMI) often strikes. The incurable brain diseases of schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar disorder combined strike 1 in every 25 people, typically as they are entering adulthood.
My son (who I’ll call Sean) was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at the age of 19. This disease is the combined illnesses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The first several years of his adult life were spent inside a living hell. The early stage was marked primarily by delusions and paranoia: there was a government conspiracy against him; Li’l Wayne and Drake were writing derogatory songs about him; and pimps were trying to kill him. But this was only the beginning of a downward spiral.
The first year of treatment showed only mild success. Antipsychotics are relatively fast acting, and if monitored, can be quickly adjusted or changed.
But with a severe shortage of psychiatric beds, lack of adequate federal and state funding for mental health services, and laws as sick as those who are ill — problems plaguing every state in this country — he was in and out of the hospital within days, still in psychosis. Further hindering recovery, he was allowed only one 30-minute psychiatric appointment per month.
There are two broader problems with treatment for SMI in America: laws and funding.
Laws were created decades ago to protect the rights of seriously mentally ill individuals without taking into account that those with SMI are often unaware of their illness due to a symptom called anosognosia and are therefore unwilling to seek treatment.
Moreover, funding has dwindled severely. Hospitals have shut down in droves in recent decades, while insufficient public funding has impeded development of adequate outpatient services and housing for mentally ill people.
It’s important to note this medical fact: The longer and more often someone is in an episode of psychosis, the more damage done to the brain. The lack of timely, adequate, and appropriate treatment results in each episode becoming increasingly more severe and reduces the likelihood of recovery.
This has proven true for Sean. A year into his illness, he received a message from a game of Scrabble to cut off his ear or toe or to break a leg to save the world.
In the middle of the night, I awakened to his blood-curdling screams. He had jumped 15 feet from a tree, fracturing his back instead.
Just prior to this feat, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to silence the commands. He branded his arm with a fork, a scar that remains today. He was admitted for psychiatric care, but released within seven days with little improvement.
Over the next three years, he was hospitalized with increasing frequency, always released within days. He was paranoid and lived in constant fear with the belief his family and friends wanted to kill him.
He hallucinated I was saying such horrific things to him as, “I’m going to chop off your head,” or “I’ll bury you alive.” He would spend nights sitting on his bed prepared to bolt if I broke down the door to kill him.
A few years into the illness, the television told him he was Jeffrey Dahmer, and the president told him to kill me. My son isn’t violent. But statistics speak for themselves, and psychosis often leads to violent and tragic acts. It was a several-day battle to get him hospitalized, and he was released in three days in the same condition.
For a couple of months, though his psychosis was still present, he had at least improved. But this often didn’t last. With his paranoia that doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and his family are trying to poison him, he often refuses medication.
Soon Sean took another downturn. He couldn’t comprehend real conversations because the hallucinatory voices were so overpowering. He carried on arguments with these voices, told news anchors on TV to shut up because they were talking about him, and was angry with the pope for something the pope was doing to him.
He repeatedly insisted he was traversing. As a result, there were two of him, or maybe three, and he didn’t know which was the real him. He became confused and didn’t know where he was and pleaded with me to get him home. I would try to reassure him, “You are the real Sean, and you are safe at home.”
But my son and I aren’t alone. This plays out for millions of seriously mentally ill people and their families day after day, week after week, and year after year as loved ones spiral further into the abyss.
In recent years, legislative proposals have been introduced, and there have been some very small strides in changing laws to improve the care and treatment for those with SMI. Still, there’s a long way to go to ensure adequate and appropriate treatment for all the sons, daughters, parents, and siblings in our country suffering from serious mental illness — and for the countless individuals who, in the future, who will be struck by this dreadful fate.
Schizophrenia Signs to Watch for in Your Teen or Young Adult Child
It’s often difficult to recognize SMIs developing because many symptoms are typical problems associated with the teen years.
Though there’s no cure for schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or bipolar disorder, recovery is possible for many with these brain diseases. But early detection is crucial to the prognosis for those with SMI.
With schizophrenia, the symptoms usually, though not always, develop gradually over months or even a couple of years. They show up as changes in behavior, thinking, and emotions.
Changes in behavior may include:
• Poor hygiene
• Talking to oneself or odd speech
• Difficulty with making or maintaining friendships
• Substance abuse
• Unusual facial or body movements
• Unblinking vacant expressions
• Difficulty picking up on social cues
• Threatening behaviors
• Increasing isolation
• Inappropriate emotional responses, such as laughing at something sad
Emotional changes are often seen in:
• Angry outbursts
• Extreme moodiness or irritability
• Severe anxiety and fearfulness
Changes in thinking might include paranoia and:
• Obsessing about the past
• Visual or auditory hallucinations
• Delusional thinking (illogical and nonsensical ideas)
• Difficulty with concentration or following a train of thought
• Trouble distinguishing dreams or television scenes from reality
Bipolar Signs to Watch for
Bipolar is a mood disorder with swings to opposite extremes. It’s believed there may be a correlation between this disease and ADHD. There are a couple forms of bipolar, one in which mania is more severe. The less extreme state is called hypomania.
With bipolar, the mood swings in teens can change in the course of just a few hours or days. During adulthood, the swings can last much longer, for weeks or months.
Depressive symptoms to watch for include:
• Loss of interest in activities
• Decline in grades
• Difficulty concentrating
• Prolonged sadness or irritability
• Loss of energy
• Change in sleep patterns
• Change in food intake
• Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
• No longer experiencing pleasure
• Suicidal thoughts
• Anxiety, worrying, and anger
The difference between mania and hypomania is primarily the severity of the symptom, where mania is more extreme. Mania or hypomania can be seen in the following symptoms:
• Decreased need for sleep
• Elated mood to exaggerated optimism
• Increased energy
• Increased confidence
• Extreme focus on projects
• Increased physical or mental activity
• Increased creativity or productivity
• Increased libido to hypersexual thoughts and behavior
• Difficulty concentrating
• Inflated sense of self-importance
• Risk taking and reckless behavior
• Racing speech and thoughts
• Grandiose delusions
Schizoaffective disorder has the combined symptoms of both schizophrenia and bipolar. The symptoms, therefore, could be any combination of symptoms for the two distinct diseases.
If your son or daughter exhibits signs, be aware that counselors and therapists don’t have the educational and medical background to diagnose or treat these specific brain diseases. Seek an evaluation at a walk-in mental health crisis center or from a licensed psychiatrist or your family doctor, who can make a referral.