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Reporter's Notebook: Cristina Mendonsa on mental illness in young adults

10:06 PM, Nov 8, 2012   |    comments
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For the 24 years I've been a journalist, one of the unwritten guidelines was that we don't cover suicides. We've covered lots of events that turned into suicides but once it became known, we didn't do a lot of coverage.

READ: Mental Illness, Campus Breakdown

 

The thought was always to respect the family and that a suicide was more of a tragic personal event than a crime that needed media scrutiny. We covered Linnea Lomax's disappearance extensively when we were unsure of the circumstances but the coverage was curtailed once her body was found and we confirmed it was a suicide. I couldn't stop wondering about this young woman who smiled at us from pictures, had a loving family and a seemingly bright future. I wondered about the months leading up to her suicide and wondered about the role mental illness might've played.

I requested an interview with the Lomax family because I hoped there would be lessons from Linnea that could help others. They are a lovely family who loved and supported Linnea, they are intensely proud of her and her mental decline hit them by surprise. What also surprised them was the inability of the mental health system to keep them informed, compel Linnea to take her medication or protect her ultimately, from her illness. Craig Lomax expressed to me several times how important and beautiful the civil rights and patient's rights are in this country but that they can't protect the patient from their illness. We sat outside on a cold day for the interview and I was so moved by their calm support of each other despite their obvious sadness over their daughter's death. Their goal now is to help other families not be hit with the hurdles and brick walls they encountered while trying to help their daughter.

I met with Amanda Lipp's parents before I actually met her. They were very warm and honest and eager to share their story to help others. While Linnea's illness came seemingly out of nowhere, Pam and Doug Lipp told me Amanda's mood swings had started in adolescence and they had already been to counseling and therapy where she was given an incorrect diagnosis. She took that bad diagnosis and the wrong medication off to college where the problems exploded. Two things struck me about the Lipps as we chatted.  From the very beginning of Amanda's behavior issues, they sought help from family and friends. When she was initially diagnosed and then had her mental break, they gathered support from a wide network of friends. They made Amanda's mental illness a "casserole disease".  Pam Lipp explained to me that at a therapy meeting she was told mental illness is not a "casserole disease", (people don't show up at your door with a lasagna when someone in the family has mental illness).  Lipp raised her hand at the meeting and said, "In our family, Amanda's illness IS a casserole disease". During Amanda's time in a hold facility, Pam gathered letters from friends and family about their own hardships. She showed me the caring book. There were letters about physical disability and personal tragedy, all with the message...things CAN and WILL get better.  I suspect that is one huge reason why Amanda is doing well today. Another reason may be Pam Lipp's position in healthcare.  She knows a system that mystifies most of us. When Amanda was about to be released from a hold facility before she was ready, Pam was on the phone calling hospitals every 30 minutes to find a bed. I know that's something I would've never thought to do.

Amanda was a pleasure to meet and is a rock solid advocate for NAMI. She explained to me what it was like inside a mental hold facility...not fun. How it feels to look around and see people who have been in and out of the system dozens of times and the fear of a diagnosis that you hope won't change your opportunities, your relationships and your potential. As she explained to me, one minute your on a college campus having the time of your life and the next you are in a mental facility, restrained and medicated.  The one amazing thing about Amanda that I took from the interview was that she now sees her bipolar diagnosis as a "superpower" (I love this).  That when she's in a manic phase she simply GETS STUFF DONE.  With medication, therapy and proper diet, she is harnessing some of the aspects of her illness to work in her favor.  She also knows she will have to closely monitor and manage her health much like someone with diabetes, for the rest of her life.

Please take a look around this page. We have unedited interviews with everyone, a flyer about a special NAMI event this weekend in Davis, a study on mental illness in college and a few other goodies courtesy of my awesome web producer/partner Maneeza.

IN-DEPTH: For extended interviews and resources on mental illness  

 

Finally, I challenge anyone who reads this to look at their network of co-workers, friends, family and neighbors without finding an instance of mental illness. Whether its hidden or obvious, there are people you know, perhaps people who love who could use your educated understanding. As always, feel free to email me personally at cmendonsa@news10.net

 

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