Contrary to popular belief, mental illness is not rare. According to Mental Health America, “mental disorders are common and widespread. An estimated 54 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder in a given year.”
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, approximately 2 to 3 million parents report that they have a mental illness. Mental health practitioner Erika Krull, MS, LMHP points out that the actual number of people suffering from mental illness is grossly under-reported in the U.S., particularly in the case of parents. Odds are you know someone who is struggling, or has struggled with it. In some cases, it develops in adulthood, which begs the question: Why is there such a strong social stigma against those with mental illness when any one of us may find ourselves fighting the same fight?
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Mental illness is defined as a wide range of mental health disorders that affects one’s thoughts, behavior, and mood to the point of disrupting one’s ability to function. Common mental disorders include depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, stress disorders, alcohol and substance abuse disorders, personality disorders, brain disorders, and bipolar disorder.
Today, tuned in parent Courtney Vaughn, mom blogger of A Bipolar Mom and Her Daily Life, bravely shares her real struggle with bipolar disorder, parenting, and marriage. Courtney hopes by shining a light on her journey with this illness, others will be inspired to start a dialogue on a subject that has been hushed and brushed into the shadows for far too long.
Courtney is a 31-year-old, stay-at-home, military wife and mom of two adorable toddlers, Caleb and Caydance. Despite interruptions due to her health, she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Walden University, summa cum laude, and is preparing for a master’s degree. She considers herself “nerdy” and open-minded, loves to craft, cook, read, and write. Courtney loves her family, has dreams and goals and hobbies just like the rest of us. And she is one parent among many with mental illness. This is Courtney reaching out.
TiP: For someone who is unfamiliar with bipolar disorder or who suspects he/she, a child, or spouse may be suffering with it, what are the symptoms?
Courtney: Keep in mind, bipolar disorder can affect everyone differently. My symptoms may not be your symptoms. To give you a general idea, however, during a manic or hypo-manic phase you could be feeling euphoria, inflated self-esteem, poor judgment, rapid speech, racing thoughts, aggressive behavior, agitation/irritation, increased physical activity, risky behavior, spending sprees/unwise financial moves, increased drive to accomplish a goal or mission, increased sex drive, decreased need for sleep, easily distracted, careless use of recreational drugs, frequent absence from school or work, delusion or break from reality/psychosis (likely in Bipolar I and in extreme cases), and poor performance in school/work.
During a depressive episode, you could be feeling sadness, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts or behavior, anxiety, guilt, sleep problems, low or increased appetite, problems concentrating, irritability, chronic pain without any known cause, frequent absences from work/school, and poor performances from school/work.
TiP: When was the first time you began having symptoms? What were you going through and what did you do about it?
Courtney: I was actually showing signs of depression back in 2005. I was not working and had just moved to a new city with my husband (military family), and I was sleeping all day when I was not traveling three hours one-way to finish up my degree. I was a senior in college. I began to feel worthless, could not focus, and was basically lost. I went and got help from my primary care manager, who sent me to a counselor. The counselor ended up diagnosing me with me “depression.” My doctor prescribed medicine to treat it, and I agreed to take it. I felt really numb but continued taking it until I woke up feeling fine. Then I threw them down the toilet and no longer sought treatment for my depression.
I thought I could handle the down spells from then on and didn’t need pills. It was not until 2008, at a new military base, that I really found out what was going on with me. I was also dealing with infertility issues and was at the lowest point in my life. I actually remember thinking I just wanted to stay in dreamland where I was at peace. However, between these days were perfect days like nothing bothered me. But I knew I needed help. So, I asked for help. And this time my experience was completely different.
Instead of just asking me questions, I also had vitals taken, my medical history and family life taken into consideration; I was observed, and so on. I was then introduced to the psychiatrist who still treats me today. He diagnosed me with “Bipolar II with generalized anxiety and rapid cycling (four or more mood episodes in a year).” During our sessions, we discovered I had, had symptoms as early as college.
TiP: How are you able to balance managing your mental health with all the requirements of being a mother and wife when something as vital as sleep is at the mercy of your symptoms and can cause a vicious cycle?
Courtney: Sleep? What’s that? I stay up all night and reap the consequences the next day. But if I am hypo-manic (similar to a manic state only less severe), I often do not feel the lack of sleep until I crash or go back to normal (when the symptoms seem to overpower medications and all my other therapies). I do manage my bipolar with medications and therapies; therefore, I do get a decent amount of sleep.
As for the actual balancing part. I look at like this. My kids and my husband did not ask for someone who is bipolar. Now I have a wonderful husband and could not have been blessed with a better man who is willing to take the time to understand me and take all my quirks.
He has never once said anything negative towards me about my health issues. He will often say, “You did not ask to be like this.” Or “We will get through this.” I know I am so blessed when it comes this because not everyone will be able to have this type relationship with someone. That right there gives me the motivation and will power to keep fighting and finding the balance of managing my bipolar and being a good wife to him. I have a lot to uphold in this department because I have to keep the home front burning bright because my husband is often gone being an infantry Marine; and he needs to know I can handle things back here even on my worst days.
As for my kids, I strive to keep balance and be the best mom I can for them.
I find that keeping on my routine is one of the best things I can for them. My children did not ask for me to bipolar heck I didn’t ask to be bipolar. They did ask for me to best mother I can be, and it is my job to try to fulfill that job and the roles that it entails. They are too young to understand what bipolar is, but they eventually will and likely will start asking questions. I hope one day those questions will be about removing the stigma and how to help others. Instead of being ashamed of their mother who has a mental illness. And if and when I have a bad episode, I hope they are able to understand to a degree.
The key to balancing it all is constantly managing my illness — that also helps with the sleep issue — and keeping a routine.
TiP: What do you want to say out there to other bipolar parents (moms and dads), maybe even those who are struggling with the symptoms but are unaware that they may have the disorder, or those who don’t feel supported enough to open up about the illness?
Courtney: I want to let them know that you are not your illness and you did not ask to be bipolar! With a combination of biology, genetics, hormones, neurology, and environmental factors, something has “hiccupped” in our brain. This is a life long illness but with love and understanding it can be managed and treated. You must also realize you are not alone in this as well. Statistics have shown one out of five Americans live with a mental illness. And that is just in America. Could you imagine the world? However, society has made mental illness something to be ashamed of when it is no different from any other medical problem. And because of this, people are scared to come forward and seek the help that they need — because the stigma still associated with mental illness.
As a parent who may be living with bipolar, realize you are no different from a parent who is not. We just have to approach life a little differently. We are like any other person facing a medical obstacle. We adapt! We thrive! We survive! If you are a parent, and you know that you live with bipolar or any other mental illness, it is your job to thrive and educate the people around you to include your children. If we can educate one person and have them understand we are no different from any other person or parent, we are one step closer to breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness. So speak up and out! Your voice does matter.
For those who are unsure, if you suspect you may be suffering from mental illness, there is no shame in seeking help. Remember, you are far from being alone! And there is help! However, you have to take the first step.
So, if you are having constant mood swings or you’ve noticed your judgement, emotions, and/or actions seem to be different, pay attention! If left untreated, bipolar disorder can become very disruptive and even potentially dangerous to you. You may justify to yourself that everyone feels like this from time to time, but ask yourself if you’re okay feeling like this all at once! Most people are not and would do well to seek treatment to manage the symptoms. And if you are having suicidal thoughts or behavior, please seek help! Below are numbers and links to resources for you.
Courtney’s message is clear: Whether it’s bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression . . . mental illness is something you HAVE, not something you ARE. And no matter how challenging the struggle, it’s manageable with treatment, will, and determination. But that’s not even the half of it.
In part 2 of Courtney’s feature, we delve deeper into the world of parenting while battling mental illness, including what a typical day is like with two toddlers during hypomanic and depressive episodes; the issue of pregnancy and mental illness; and the extra challenges parents like Courtney have to face and tips for meeting them head on. So, stay tuned for that!
In the meantime, ask Courtney any questions you may have in the comments below, join her in speaking up about mental health issues, and/or just encourage her and other parents like her. And check out her blog, A Bipolar Mom and Her Daily Life.
If you or someone you know is expressing suicidal behavior or having suicidal thoughts, please refer to the following resources or your local suicide hotlines for help:
- NATIONAL HOTLINES: http://www.suicide.org/suicide-hotlines.html
- 1-800-784-2433 or 1-800-273-8255
- MILITARY VETERANS SUICIDE HOTLINE: 1-800-273-8255 (PRESS 1)
- SPANISH SUICIDE HOTLINE: 1-800-273- 8255 (PRESS 2)
- LGBT YOUTH SUICIDE HOTLINE: 1-866-4-U-TREVOR
- INTERNATIONAL SUICIDE HOTLINES: http://www.suicide.org/international-suicide-hotlines.html
Thank you for being tuned in parents. A special thanks to tuned in parent Courtney Vaughn for speaking up about her journey as a bipolar mom. She is a parent in the trenches, not a doctor. For medical advice, please refer to your health care providers. We welcome your comments, suggestions, stories, and all things parenting! There’s more for you, too, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest!