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The stigma of bipolarism

Eileen JoyceSixteen-year-old Alana Walz talks to friends during her lunch break at Nevada Union High School Friday.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about mental health issues in Nevada County. Click here to read the first article in the series,

Click here to read the third article in the series,



Life can be good with mental illness, despite what society has been led to believe about maladies afflicting the brain.

People diagnosed with debilitating disorders that once left little hope for recovery are now finding their place in society and leading fruitful lives.




They have jobs and families and everyday worries and responsibilities like anyone else, said Lily Marie, liaison for the Nevada County Behavioral Health Department’s Caring Hearts Peer Counseling and Stomp Out Stigma programs.

Though maintaining their health and dealing with their disorders is an ongoing and arduous process, Marie said people can overcome their mental illnesses.

“We have people in this room who are an example of recovery,” said Marie during a peer counseling session last week. “I don’t see these people as disabled at all and always say they’re going to save the world.”

The volunteer peer counselors, who all have disorders of their own, help others find their own solutions and facilitate the healing process through listening and sharing their personal tragedies and triumphs.

“It’s perfectly possible to have a mental illness and still live a productive and normal life,” said bipolar peer counselor Scottie Hart. “There is life after mental illness.”

Peggy Bryner rose above her struggle to raise two daughters, despite being diagnosed as bipolar.

“I’ve been as far down as I can possibly go, but I climbed out of that hole and chose to change my life,” said Bryner. “I became a peer counselor to help others understand that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Stigma continues to be the single most significant barrier to people getting the help they need and remains a pervasive and potentially lethal barrier to mental illness recovery, according to the U.S Surgeon General’s landmark 1999 report on mental health.

Stigma deprives people of their dignity and interferes with their full participation in society and must be overcome, the report states.

But how can the barriers be broken down?

“The same way we’ve overcome racial bigotry and any kind of ignorance throughout the years,” said bipolar peer counselor Don Sheard. “If people just understood what mental illness is – a physical disease that affects the organ of the mind – there would be less stigma and a lot more tolerance.”

New and improved medications and medical science breakthroughs have led to revolutionary changes in the treatment of mental illnesses, said Lael Walz, president of the Nevada County chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

“Science has given us so many tools that we just didn’t have before,” she said. “But the public doesn’t always catch up with what science knows.”

Walz said people diagnosed with a mental illness today stand a good chance of recovering.

“Our goal is to get people in for treatment, but you have to fight that stigma because people are afraid.”

Shamed by the stigma and fearful of past practices – primitive shock treatment, straight jackets and dungeon-like sanitariums where people were locked away for good – millions refuse to seek treatment and choose to let their disorder take control of their lives, Walz said.

But the mental health care system has shifted from the quick-to-commit mentality of the past to a community-based treatment approach, said Behavioral Health Director Robert Erickson.

“It use to be, frankly, almost treated as if it were illegal to be mentally ill – that being mentally ill meant being in a locked situation,” Erickson said. “That’s not the case anymore, that’s not the way the laws are structured, and that’s not the philosophy we work with.”

Walz said shame is a big part of the mental illness stigma.

“Bipolar actress Patty Duke said the single most difficult thing she had to deal with was the shame of what she had done while she was ill before she knew what was wrong,” said Walz, whose daughter Alana was also diagnosed as bipolar.

At age 16, Nevada Union sophomore Alana Walz has already cleared many of the personal hurdles thrown up by the stigma associated with bipolarism.

“I’m completely proud that I’m bipolar, to be honest, because its opened my eyes to so many things,” Alana said. “I understand the world so much better. I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Alana said she was an outgoing, energetic, happy-go-lucky sixth-grader whose world suddenly started spiraling downward.

“In seventh grade, I went through this hard time when everything started to become dark and dreary and depressing,” she said.

The bipolar disorder, which has also been called manic depression, is a roller coaster of highs and lows characterized by mood swings from periods of intense elation to deep sadness.

The manic is the upside of bipolarism, and the depressive is the downside.

Alana’s daily routine revolves around 11 pills taken in different increments three times a day – five in the morning, five at dinner and one just before bedtime.

The trick, Alana said, is finding the right combinations and dosages of medications to balance her manic and depressive sides, which often fluctuate.

Alana gets a little too manic in the spring, so she takes a little more Depakote, a mood stabilizer.

Other bipolars get depressed during the dreary winter months and have to take more antidepressants for balance, she said.

“I look at it like my brain is kind of lopsided without the medication,” Alana said.

Though sometimes criticized for taking too many pills by people who don’t understand her condition, Alana said she has no problem taking her medication.

“I’d rather go to therapy and take medication and live a normal life,” Alana said. “If I don’t take my medication, it’s a real struggle. The disease can really eat you up.”

A lot of people, however, don’t want to admit there’s something wrong with them and choose to let their disorders control their lives, Alana said.

“Who wants to take pills for the rest of their life? it’s a hard thing to accept,” she said. “But once you can find it in yourself to accept that, life can be so much better.”

Before she started taking her medication, Alana said she was a hyper, out-of-control kid.

“It felt like I was kind of in a haze or something. But now I can actually see the reality of things and understand.”

Alana said it’s tough dealing with the stigma at school and teachers who don’t understand her invisible condition – why one day she can’t focus and the next she comes across like a manic troublemaker.

But things have improved this year, she said, thanks in part to Nevada Union Vice Principal Trisha Dellis.

“She completely understands. She can see it for some reason and helps me with anything,” Alana said. “I can go to her anytime with my feelings and concerns.”

Part 3 – A visit to the Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital emergency room . The need for a crisis stabilization unit and in-patient care facility in Nevada County, mental health funding issues, then back to Alice.


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