Who I Am

Shedding the stigma of child mental health

Claire Wenzel, 15, smiles brightly as she surfs the web for multimillion-dollar home listings – a unique hobby she’s had for a few years now. Her eyes grow big and her smile broadens as she soaks in the sight of a luxurious home filled with more rooms than anyone can count, spiraling staircases, a chapel and, much, much more. She already has big plans to one day be a realtor for high-end properties.

When she’s not scanning the listings, Claire can be found texting or using Facebook, playing a game of softball or hanging out with her friends. She has a natural talent for making everyone around her smile or double over in laughter, especially her siblings.

While in most every way Claire is a regular teenager, she also suffers from bipolar disorder. The mood disorder, once referred to as manic depression, is characterized by dramatic mood swings. Scientists have found there may be a genetic component influencing one’s susceptibility to bipolar disorder and that it can run in families.

And just like someone with diabetes who manages their condition with insulin shots, a regular compliance regimen and doctor visits, or any long-term chronic issue requiring ongoing treatment and monitoring, Claire’s condition requires routine management.

Claire makes regular trips to the Virginia Treatment Center for Children at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, where a child mental health expert helps her manage her condition through treatment and support. The center, which opened its doors 50 years ago this year, has been a resource to families from all parts of Virginia, noted for its expertise, patient care and research.

For Claire, being bipolar has been challenging at times. She said that she is prone to becoming frustrated about minor issues – such as working through a math problem at school – more easily than her peers.

“I might argue with the teacher when I get something wrong and even though the teacher is right … I will get very teary eyed when telling the teacher this,” she said.

“Having bipolar disorder is overwhelming at times, but it makes me who I am,” she said.

In the United States, approximately 15 million children suffer from mental illness, and only 20 percent receive treatment. Unfortunately, it’s a topic rarely discussed between young people and adults, and the stigma attached to mental illness still prevails.

“Generally, mental health is viewed as part of a character flaw rather than something physical or a neurobiological-based problem,” said Bela Sood, M.D., medical director of the center, where she has treated and cared for children and their families, including Claire, living with a mental health illness.

“Parents do not hesitate in getting care for a child with a broken arm, or condition such as diabetes – and parents are not embarrassed by it. The same should hold true for mental health,” said Sood, professor and chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at the VCU School of Medicine and a nationally recognized expert in children and adolescents with mental health problems.

Parents as experts
Claire was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was just 6-years-old, after her mother, Donna Wenzel, noticed she was throwing fits and having temper tantrums over what seemed like small issues, and she was unable to take redirection well.

Because there had been a history of mental health illness in the family, Wenzel knew to take her daughter to a mood disorders clinic for a comprehensive evaluation. She learned that the signs her daughter had displayed were actually mania due to having bipolar disorder.

While the initial news of her daughter’s diagnosis was a blow to the family, Wenzel knew to keep moving forward and ensure that Claire received the best care possible by an experienced professional in the child mental health field.

“As a parent you tend to know what’s normal and what’s not for your child, but if you see that something is off, seek an expert in childhood mental disorders,” said Wenzel.

“People often blame parents for doing this or that – or are told that things will be fine, but unless the right expert is involved, that won’t be the case.”

From a parent’s perspective, Wenzel strongly encourages parents to go with their intuition.

“If you think, as a parent, that something is wrong and you’re not getting the answers that you want, keep seeking other professionals until they can help put together the pieces of the puzzle,” she said.

Science behind mental illness
In the recent years, mental health researchers have made great strides to advance our understanding of what takes place in the brain from a neurobiological perspective, said Sood.

In recent years, scientific knowledge has demonstrated that behavior stems from the way people are wired, and not what they will upon themselves.

VCU’s mental health experts and researchers are among those who have been working to better understand the science behind mental illness and care. Read more about the research arm of the Virginia Treatment Center for Children here.

“I think that stigma is one of those big things that we must focus on because it’s related to a lack of education and lack of knowledge about a particular thing. When we fear something we tend to avoid it and we often tend to demonize it,” explained Sood.

“When we demonize it we do not give it its rightful place and obviously that converts into how adequately we fund programs that may alleviate suffering. To break down the walls of stigma and mental health illiteracy takes courage,” she said.

It takes courage
Claire recently, and for the first time, told a close friend that she suffered from bipolar disorder. She wasn’t sure what to expect.

“She was really supportive, but shocked because she didn’t think I acted like it (bipolar) around her. She is a really good influence on me,” she said. Claire recalls feeling empowered by her decision to share this personal struggle with a friend.

Claire and her mother spoke of misconceptions about bipolar disorder and mental health illness. From a parent’s perspective, Wenzel said that other parents may think your kids are brats and the parent of an ill child may not know how to parent. She also said that children perceive bipolar disorder as a person being happy one minute and really upset the next, and their moods fluctuate – both which are not true, according to Wenzel.

“A mental health diagnosis isn’t the end of the world,” said Wenzel. “Your child will still have ups and downs, but after puberty, the symptoms tend to mellow out.”

“Bipolar disorder is something you manage,” she added.

Claire and her mother agreed that working with child mental health experts and having a supportive and encouraging family has made all the difference.

It’s all about having the right attitude, too. Claire said the key to managing her bipolar disorder is positivity.

“Keep your head up and keep trying because you’ll get through it. I did. You may have problems here and there, but if you have a good support system, you should be fine,” she said.

“Each day is a new chance to start fresh,” said Claire.