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Erase the Stigma
As a parent of a mentally ill child, Dorothy O'Donnell knows the challenges of treatment.

By Dorothy O'Donnell

My daughter was six when she was diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder. I was shocked, but also relieved. And so was she.

Her history of erratic, sometimes frightening behavior started in preschool. By kindergarten, she'd earned some less-than-flattering labels. The weird girl. The bad girl. The crazy girl.

The worst part was she believed them. When I tucked her in at night, she'd cry and say she didn't belong on this planet.

Getting a diagnosis was like being handed a map after being lost in the wilderness. My daughter is 10 now. With treatment, the differences between her and her peers aren't as obvious. She loves Taylor Swift and fashion. She has friends and slumber parties.

I try to be open about her condition and encourage her to do the same, just like I would if she had allergies or asthma. I want to empower her and help erase the stigma attached to mental illness.

But sometimes it feels safer to hide. I get why the Newtown shooter's mother chatted about gardening with friends instead of telling them what she was dealing with at home. And why Liza Long wrote "I am Adam Lanza's Mother," the blog post that outraged some who felt she exploited her troubled teen by sharing tales of his violence.

I'm lucky to have a network of supportive friends, family members and mental health professionals. Yet I still lapse into censoring myself when talking about my daughter, or pretend that everything's fine even if I'm struggling. I worry that she'll be judged and shunned by others, and that I will, too.

The Newtown tragedy put the need to better understand childhood mental illness, and support the families coping with it, in the national spotlight. I hope this interest doesn't fade as headlines about the story diminish. We need to talk openly about mental illness, and treat kids afflicted with it the same way we do children with other diseases -- with the compassion and help that will give them a chance to lead normal lives.

With a Perspective, I'm Dorothy O'Donnell.

Dorothy O'Donnell lives in Marin and is working on a memoir about raising her daughter.

 

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