You never think a mental health crisis will happen to your family, until it happens…
Our family moved from Nashville, Tennessee to the Upper Midwest when our daughter, Rebecka, was entering sixth grade. It was a tough move. My husband, Todd, lived in Iowa teaching at a liberal arts college, and I worked at a software company four hours away, outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Todd came home on the weekends to visit me, Rebecka, and our dog, Sophie.
We all did our best to lead normal lives despite our less than ideal living situation. Everything seemed to be going okay until one spring day Rebecka told us, kind of out of the blue, that she was feeling depressed. It took us by surprise. We hadn’t really seen any signs that she was feeling this way.
“I cry in the bathroom sometimes,” she said. “You know when I’m in there for a long time in the evenings?” I nodded and listened and told her that it would be okay. We would work through it together.
Fast forward a few weeks and we found ourselves in the doctor’s office. I was concerned Rebecka might have an eating disorder, because she’d lost a lot of weight. However, the doctor homed in on Rebecka’s feelings of depression. He recommended we see a therapist or a psychiatrist. Seeing a psychiatrist sounded rather drastic, so we decided to go the therapist route.
After just one session, the therapist declared we should “kick-start” the process with medication. We went back to Rebecka’s pediatrician and emerged with a prescription for Zoloft. Rebecka continued to see the therapist throughout the summer between seventh and eighth grade and continued to take Zoloft. It didn’t make her feel better. The doctor changed her prescription to Prozac.
Within weeks, Rebecka was hallucinating (auditory, visual, and tactile) and soon thereafter she began to express suicidal thoughts. We panicked and called the local psychiatric hospital. They admitted her immediately. The attending psychiatrist prescribed an antipsychotic and another medication to counter known side effects of the antipsychotic. (What?!?)
The following months were pure hell. Rebecka was in and out of the hospital. Prescriptions changed continuously. She was not getting better—she was getting worse. Here is an excerpt from my book, Her Lost Year: A Story of Hope and a Vision for Optimizing Children’s Mental Health, to demonstrate just how bad it got:
Todd and I got to witness one of these [psychotic] episodes during a visit. We were sitting with Rebecka in her room when all of a sudden she got up from her bed with a glazed look on her face. She walked out the door and wandered down the hallway as if we were not in the room with her and she couldn’t hear us. Nervous and not sure what to do, I followed Rebecka into the stark hallway, my eyes searching for a hospital attendant.
“Excuse me,” I asked the first person I could find, a nurse who I’d seen interacting with Rebecka when we arrived. “What . . . ?” I didn’t even have the vocabulary to ask a question. I just pointed to Rebecka.
The nurse gently steered Rebecka back to the room and sat her down on the bed. “Try to keep her on the bed until this passes,” she said casually as if we were simply waiting for the rain to stop. “That way she won’t injure herself by bumping into things.”
As soon as the nurse left, Rebecka tried to get off the bed and struggled as we attempted to keep her safe. As the episode went on, she became increasingly frustrated.
I sang to her the songs that had soothed her as a young child. Todd tried to coax her out of her trance. We cried and wondered, is this it? Have we lost our little girl forever? Is she going to be institutionalized for the rest of her life?
It was possibly the most terrifying experience of our lives.
Not until a year after Rebecka’s pediatrician handed her that first prescription for Zoloft did my husband and I work up the courage to go against the psychiatric status quo. We asked the attending psychiatrist (this was during her eighth hospitalization) to take her off all psychiatric medications. He agreed.
This was the turning point in Rebecka’s recovery. Once her brain started functioning normally again (off meds), we were able to focus on the underlying problem: her disordered eating. She went through the eating disorder program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota during the fall of ninth grade. By the end of that school year, she was fully recovered.
This experience was so extreme that I started doing a lot of research on modern psychiatry and all the corruption that takes place between the American Psychiatric Association and Big Pharma. The most important piece of information I found was that the chemical imbalance theory is outdated and unfounded. The very basis of the disease model that was used to expand the definition of mental illness and promote the use of psychiatric drugs since the 1980s is a myth.
To me, this was great news! I realized that mental health is something we can nurture and optimize just like we can optimize our physical health. How empowering! I continued my research to focus on all the different ways we can optimize kids’ mental health from exercise and other “natural therapies” to clinical therapies such as family therapy and dialectical behavior therapy to mindfulness and social and emotional learning. I even started working with the local school district to implement some of these strategies.
From Rebecka’s lost year arose a story of hope! A mental illness diagnosis doesn’t have to be a life sentence. And better yet, we can work with children to create in them a resilience to weather life’s ups and down. We can help them realize that feeling the full range of emotions is part of the human experience. We can give them the gift of knowing that they are loved for who they are, not for what they do.
As a society, we can raise mentally healthy children. This gives me hope.
P.S. Two weeks ago, Rebecka moved into her dorm at Luther College, where my husband and I work. She is healthy, full of hopes for the future, and ready to embark on her college journey. Her lost year, as horrendous as it was, helped her develop the skills that will help her travel the bumpy road we call life. For this, I am grateful.