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.
Karen Renken was just 14, but she knew something was terribly wrong. "I
was a straight-A student, and suddenly I started failing in school," says
Renken, now 45, of Long Island, N.Y.
At high school, she would go from enjoying a seemingly normal mood to
throwing a tantrum in the hallway. Her teenage response to normal requests,
such as her mother's plea to pick up after herself, was dramatic. She would,
she says, "shriek like a maniac."
Renken was sent to a psychiatrist, who prescribed an antidepressant,...
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
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
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
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.