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Balancing Act: A Mother and Her Sons Cope with Bipolar Disorder

A family learns to deal with bipolar disorder, once called manic depression.
WebMD Magazine - Feature

Fran Szabo, 61, of Bethlehem, Pa., is one of those moms who speak glowingly about her kids without sounding like she’s trying to one-up other mothers. All three are successful in their careers and personal lives.

But the road to this happiness, Fran acknowledges, was bumpy for her, husband Paul, and sons Thad, 36, Vance, 32, and Ross, 29. Ross and Thad were both diagnosed with bipolar disorder so severe they required psychiatric hospitalizations. For years after that, Thad was estranged from the family. And on one awful night, when Ross was 16, Fran and Paul rushed him to the hospital after he told them he was planning to kill himself.

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Life is much better now, mostly because the Szabos, led by Fran, faced the mental health issues head-on. And the challenges were formidable. Bipolar disorder, formerly called manic-depressive illness, is marked by extreme mood swings, from deep depression to mania and elation. About 6 million adults have bipolar disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, but there are no firm numbers on how many children and teens are affected.

After learning the hard way how to cope with their family’s bipolar struggles, the Szabos have reached out to help others. In 1996, Fran joined Compeer Inc., an advocacy group that seeks to help those with mental illness, and for a time was on its advisory board. Ross, who lives in Venice, Calif., is now director of youth outreach for the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign. He is a presenter for Campuspeak, Inc., talking to college students nationwide about mental health issues, and the author (with Melanie Hall, a fellow activist) of the book, Behind Happy Faces: Taking Charge of Your Mental Health — A Guide for Young Adults.

For families with a child with bipolar disorder, Fran and Ross offer these been-there tips:

Talk about bipolar disorder. When Ross was discharged from his first hospitalization, 13 years ago, the home atmosphere was tense. “It felt like we were walking on eggshells,” Fran remembers. Ross’ mood was so unpredictable at that time, she never knew if he would be happy, sad, angry, or withdrawn. The Szabos learned to talk about issues as they came up, Ross says, gradually getting better at it. Ross asked his psychiatrist for advice on breaking the ice and also reached out to Thad, inspiring his older brother to reconnect with the family.

Acknowledge bipolar disorder. A parent’s natural inclination, says Ross, is to fix the problem by finding the best treatment. But first, ask how your child feels about the diagnosis. Ross says he was in denial, and only after he accepted the diagnosis did he take responsibility for his treatment.

Don’t feel sorry for yourself if bipolar disorder is in your family. Even on the worst days, Fran tried to stay positive. At one point, when Ross was so depressed he dropped out of college and was sleeping 16 hours a day, Fran encouraged him to get a part-time job and take just two courses at the nearby community college. “You don’t have to prove anything to me,” she told him. “Just prove something to yourself.” He did and it helped him begin to take control of the disease and his life. 

Tell a friend about bipolar disorder. While it’s important to connect with family, Ross says, teens should reach out to peers, too -- whether it’s pals who “get it” or a more formal support group.

Reviewed on March 31, 2008

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