Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

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Mood swings are universal. Everybody has them at one time or another.

Bipolar disorder is not just mood swings. Not everyone has moods that can last for months or years at a time or moods that are so extreme that they interfere with one’s daily life. The depths of despair and the rocketing highs are not what most people experience – and they should be glad they don’t. Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness (SMI). It can be more or less severe, and it can be well or poorly controlled with medication and therapy, but the reality is that bipolar is a mood disorder, an illness, and a curse. 

Of course, the mood swings of bipolar disorder don’t always last for months or years. Sometimes you go spinning out of control every few weeks. This is called “rapid cycling.”

But even rapid cycling doesn’t describe the lightning-quick mood changes that can happen within a day or two. That’s called “ultra-rapid cycling,” and it’s like being whip-sawed by your brain. Those valleys and peaks come so closely together that you don’t even have time to catch your breath between them.

I think that the official criteria miss the mark on this. Many of them define rapid cycling as experiencing four mood swings within a year. Ultra-rapid cycling seems not to have a specific definition, but I and a lot of other people with bipolar disorder experience moods that swing not over the course of months, but over the course of weeks, or even days.

Ultra-rapid cycling blurs the lines into mixed episodes. Those are occasions when high and low moods occur at the same time. For many bipolar sufferers, this means simultaneous exaltation and despair, which is a terrible combination and a bitch to experience. For me, a person with bipolar type 2 whose hypomania expresses most of the time as anxiety, a mixed episode is a frightening blur of defeat and nervousness, a simultaneous feeling that the worst has already come and that it is about to descend to even lower levels. It’s like ricocheting off the insides of your own skull.

What to do at a time like this is a puzzle. Do I try the things that soothe me when anxiety strikes? Do I try self-care for depressed moods? Do the two strategies cancel each other out, leaving me swinging helplessly? Do I try to suppress both moods, knowing that the consequent numbness will make it all the more difficult for me to feel “normal” moods again? Once those walls are built, they are hard to tear down.

Ultra-rapid cycling and mixed episodes may be handy jargon to describe mood swings that don’t fit the common mode of bipolar disorder.  But they’re hell to live through. And since mood levelers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety meds generally take a while to build up in the bloodstream enough to have an effect, there is little in the way of pharmaceutical help. An anti-anxiety pill may relieve the jitters and racing thoughts, but may also leave you more susceptible to the inevitable lows.

I don’t know if there’s much research going on regarding rapid cycling and mixed episodes. It seems like they’ve barely been named, much less defined or studied. And it’s true that there is a lot about plain old garden-variety bipolar disorder that remains to be understood and treated.

But for those of us who don’t fit the mold of months-long or years-long mood states, rapid cycling can be an uncomfortable way of life. When I was undiagnosed and unmedicated, I experienced those long, interminable lows. They did last months, years, until the depths of hell were all that I could see. The jags of ambition seldom visited me, but the creeping, lingering anxiety could easily take over. Now that I’m no longer subject to those excruciating extremes, I still am subject to the quick-change, rapid-fire series of moods. My mood levelers do work, in the sense that they reduce the peaks and valleys, but they never seem to put me on a totally even keel.

Perhaps that’s too much to expect. I’ll have to admit that I prefer a life of rapid- or ultra-rapid-cycling bipolar to the monotonous despair of long depressive cycles. At least now I have a firm conviction that the moods will end, or at least shift, to something more tolerable, and that that will happen sooner rather than later.

Given the choice between the lingering depths and the more rapid changes, I’ll take the one that doesn’t leave me in misery for years at a time.

 

Alone time is a precious thing. But right now, with the self-isolation that accompanies the pandemic, many of us are experiencing too much “alone time.” But many of us need more.

Alone time has been important to me as I have struggled with bipolar disorder. I have a loving, supportive husband who is there when I need him to be. But even he knows that sometimes what I need is to be left alone.

Sometimes the world is too much with us, and we long to escape – read a book, hide under the blankets, just sit in the corner and think. At times like that, interacting with another person can feel like an intrusion, an annoyance, unwelcome. Alone time can allow you to catch your breath, calm yourself, practice mindfulness, or simply be alone with your feelings.

Of course, getting alone time is not always easy, especially now when we may be cooped up with our nearest and dearest, with no respite in sight. In my opinion, these are the times when a bit of alone time is even more necessary. Even with people you love, being with them 24 hours a day, every day, will begin to wear on you all. Stress builds and you may be triggered by noise, conflict, or other stimuli.

I’m lucky. That supportive husband knows, if his other efforts at drawing me out (offering me food, or a movie, or music) have failed, the greatest gift he can give me is alone time. He’ll even ask me if I need alone time, in case I don’t realize that is exactly what I do need.

I’m also lucky that there is a dedicated space in my house that is perfect for alone time – my study. It has a computer, music, comfort objects, games, favorite pictures, and more. It even has a comfy chair so that I can just sit and think if that is what I need to do. I know that I come at this topic from a place of privilege.

Making mental and physical space for alone time is harder when you have a roommate or a family that doesn’t understand the concept of alone time. The TV may be blaring, the washer clanking, the kids yelling, the spouse being needy. There may be someone in every room of the house, making noise or demanding your attention. Sometimes you can’t even be alone in the bathroom. You want everything to stop, just for a while.

In situations like that, you may have to ask for alone time. First, realize that it’s a reasonable request. Suggest ways to make it happen – I need to be alone in the basement (garage, kitchen, yard, whatever) for a while. Don’t disturb me unless someone’s bleeding or something’s on fire. Offer to return the favor. If you’re feeling pent up, chances are someone else in the house is too.

Of course, too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing. Even though I need a fair amount of alone time, too much can leave me stuck inside my own head, not always a comfortable place to be. I can brood, catastrophize, feel lonely or bored, give in to depression. It helps if I can recognize when alone time is turning toxic like that. When I’ve had enough alone time, I can choose to leave that behind and rejoin the world in a better frame of mind.

As far as I can see, alone time is vital for every person, even the very gregarious. It allows us to let go and drop our metaphoric masks. But alone time is particularly necessary for those with mental illness. The ability to be alone with oneself can be a powerful step in understanding and healing. And whether time alone is the norm or the exception now, people’s mental health suffers. Connection is what we hear most about – virtual meetings, video chats, texts, and calls – but alone time is vital too. Treasure it when you get some. 

Persistence of Memory

It is spring, sunny and pleasant, but the wind is blowing at 20 miles per hour. The boughs of the fir trees sway dramatically. The bird feeder glints in the sun as the light catches its swinging arc.

I am anxious.

There is a thunderstorm. Those same trees are tormented by strong winds. The hard rain doesn’t fall but blows sideways. Golfball-sized hail pelts the ground. I swear I can see lightning flash close to our house.

I am panicking.

About ten months ago, my life was changed when I lived through a tornado. Everyone says it was a miracle I survived. I was on the second floor of my house, with no time to get to the basement, when the roof came off. Assaulted by a maelstrom of flying dirt, insulation, and debris, I put a pillow over my head and hoped for the best. And I came through it without a scratch, although the house was damaged so badly that it had to be torn down. It’s being rebuilt right now and we hope to move in in a couple of months.

After the tornado passed, I was calm. I even slept with that filthy pillow as I waited for my husband and the rescue squad to come and extricate me from the bedroom. As the days passed, I had to deal with a lot of things that reminded me of the tornado – staying in a Red Cross shelter, dealing with the insurance company, going back to the house to rescue our pets and salvage a few belongings that had been in the least-damaged part of the house.

As time went by, I told my story again and again to friends and acquaintances who asked about it. Without exception, they were amazed not just at my survival, but at how incredibly calmly I talked about it and how I didn’t seem to be suffering from any post-traumatic effects.

Then why is it that, ten months later, I seem to be experiencing the anxiety and panic that should have struck me then? Heavy rain makes me nervous. Strong winds disturb me. Lightning makes me jump.

My husband thinks that it is because we are getting closer to the anniversary of when it all happened. And it is again tornado season in Ohio. I think it was not completely irrational of me to be afraid of the storm last week. I just wonder why it happened after all this time. Have I been in denial for ten months? Does it sometimes take that long for post-traumatic stress to manifest?

A friend of mine had a similar experience when her car was nearly hit by lightning. At first, she said, she was still able to drive to work. But as time went on, she became more and more frightened of driving through rain. As she put it, “Over time, my anxiety ramped up rather than down.” She had to have de-sensitization treatment.

Her explanation for the delayed reaction was that “the long-term memory encoded it.” Perhaps it’s possible that the lightning for her and the tornado for me lingered in short term memory and did not become troublesome until they were fully stored in our long-term memory banks. That sounds counterintuitive, but it may be right.

Will I be comfortable on the second floor of the house when we finally occupy it? Will I be able to sleep in the bedroom? Will every thunderstorm send me racing to the basement?

I just don’t know.

Flap My Arms and Fly

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I’m not a big fan of positive thinking memes. In fact, they have the opposite effect on me. Someone who claims that a positive attitude is all that I need to change my life is likely to get only a “pfui” from me. As a person with bipolar disorder, I sometimes have major depression, and no amount of thinking is going to pull me out of it. In fact, the only thinking I can do at times like that is likely only to pull me farther into the depths.

If affirmations and positive thoughts work for you, I say, good. If mindfulness and meditation are your jam, then I say, whatever works. But please don’t try to deny my perception of reality.

That perception is that there are some things that positive thinking can’t do. That there are some situations that are immune to positive thinking. That positive thinking can’t change the outcome of everything.

Admittedly, positive thinking can change one’s attitude toward one’s circumstances. One can choose, as my father did, to be determined, stubborn, and positive in the face of his diagnosis with multiple myeloma. It likely helped him live long past what his doctors expected.

But not everyone can do that, and maybe not everyone should. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that acceptance was the final stage of the process of dying, not the first. The same, I think, is true of grieving. Anger, denial, bargaining, and depression are natural responses to cataclysmic events, including diagnoses, and in this case, particularly diagnoses of serious mental illness.

Although my father was well-known for his “positive mental attitude” about his cancer diagnosis, I remember a time when he could not even say the word.  He swallowed it, leaving out the vowels: cncr. And I remember that at times he was in denial about his illness and tried to do things he was physically not capable of doing – even, at one point, walking down the short hall to the bathroom. Even positivity could not help him there.

I watch a lot of competition shows on TV – Chopped, Forged in Fire, etc. – and I often hear the contestants say that they are doing it to prove to their children that they can do anything they set their minds to.

A part of me always says, “Okay, then. Flap your arms and fly.”

I know that sounds cynical and bitter, but it’s also the truth. The contestant who was cut in the first round has not done what he or she intended to or believed he or she could do. After that, they espouse the more reasonable and attainable lesson that their children, or others, should try to follow their dreams and take that trial as a noble effort, even if it doesn’t end in victory.

I have bipolar disorder. There are some heights I can never fly to, no matter how hard I flap my arms. I know I will have to take medication for the rest of my life. I know that, even with medication, I will still experience mood swings. I know that I will never be able to really trust my moods – that a setback might send me teetering over the edge or a triumph might make me imagine that I can indeed fly.

And, you know what? I’m okay with that. What I’ve accomplished with the help of medication, therapy, and the support of my family and friends, is good and is good enough. My dreams are down-to-earth, not grandiose. I do not dream of flying, but of remaining as stable as I can, right here and now. I choose not to delude myself with unattainable goals.

My father didn’t think he was going to live forever, but he was determined to live as long as he could, and to enjoy what he could in spite of the pain. I think that’s as ambitious as someone with a catastrophic illness can get. I admire him for his sustained effort and his stubborn resistance to despair. I admire those of my friends – and there are some – who can choose not to be dragged down by the circumstances of life.

Maybe it’s different for me because my disorder by its nature involves a component of lowered mood. But my expectations are not to flap my arms and fly, but just to keep on keeping on.

Scars from self-harm are reminders of dark periods in our lives, times when we felt too little or too much. Times when we thought that feeling physical pain could distract us from emotional pain. Times when we felt so numb that we self-harmed to reassure ourselves that we were still alive.

Tattoos can be a lot of things. They can indicate membership in a tribe, be a reminder of a happy occasion, commemorate the passing of a loved one, be a work of art, be a relict of a drunken night, espouse a cause, or have a personal meaning that no one else is party to.

Self-harm is something a lot of us have tried, in one form or another. And the scars produced by it have many meanings. They can be reminders that we lived through a really bad time or reminders that we chose a really bad coping mechanism. Some people look at their own scars and feel lucky to have survived. Some look and feel shame.

Now, a Philadephia tattoo studio, Crown and Feather Tattoo Co., is offering to cover up people’s self-harm scars with free tattoos. The service is so popular that the studio has had to hire more tattoo artists to keep up with the demand.

They call this effort “Project Tsukurou,” a word derived from Kintsugi, a Japanese art form that involves repairing broken pottery with resin and gold dust. I wrote about Kintsugi recently (Beautiful at the Broken Places, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Yj). Rebuilding oneself after a breakdown and thinking about making it a work of art was very empowering to me. Apparently, the tattoo artists and their patrons felt the same way.

I have scars from self-harm and I have tattoos. The tattoos don’t cover the scars but are located in close proximity. The scars have faded, nearly invisible now since the dozens of years since they were created. I am over that, healthier than that now. (Once someone asked me how I quit self-harm. I replied, “I didn’t need to anymore.”)

At first, I was ashamed of those scars. I tried to hide them with wide bracelets and watchbands. Later, I made my peace with them. They were now a part of me, a reminder of a time of despair and despondency. They were a reminder never to let things get that bad again. That there are things I can now do to alleviate the pain or the numbness, should it ever get that bad again anyway.

Mostly, I don’t look at the scars anymore. But my tattoos are right there next to them. One is a semicolon, a symbol and reminder of suicide prevention. (See projectsemicolon.com for more information.) The other is the :): symbol for bipolar disorder. When I look at these tattoos, I think of the reality of both my disorder and my new, better, life-saving coping mechanisms.

Of course, tattoos are not a choice that everyone is prepared to make. Some people feel that they shouldn’t modify their body in that way. But for someone who has already modified their body with scars of self-harm, tattoos can possibly give them back a measure of dignity and pride that their self-harming days are over. They can look at their bodies and see, not mutilations, but life-affirming works of art.

So far, the only tattoo studio that I know of performing this service for free is the one in Philly. But most tattoo studios are used to covering over regretted tattoos with new ones. They should be able to cover the scars of self-harm as well. And if they don’t do it for free, well, one could think of the money as an investment in healing or moving forward or creating a work of art where once there was only a reminder of pain.

 

Reference:

https://scoop.upworthy.com/tattoo-studio-covers-up-self-harm-scars-for-free-it-totally-changes-your-outlook?fbclid=IwAR0sjb_G3sS_P3FsXmImsBtRaIrFkak_8OHjcNJJjocnnSrrL1X-bBqgSlc

I’ll admit that I’ve had a lot of side effects from the various psych meds I’ve taken over the years, and some of them were bad enough to make me ask for something different. There’s been insomnia, sleeping too much, twitchiness, vivid nightmares, and others. But as far as I can see, there are only two side effects that would make me completely quit taking a prescribed medication, even before I could ask my doctor about it.

The first is Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. It’s what they mean when they say on TV commercials, “a fatal rash may occur” (I didn’t even know rashes could be fatal). Indeed, your skin starts to come off. I think it’s always a bad sign when your insides suddenly become your outsides, like in that Simpsons episode where everyone turned inside out. Among the medications that can cause SJS are anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, and other psychotropic drugs, at least two of which I take daily. When he prescribed them, my psychiatrist told me to stop taking the meds instantly if I got a rash around my mouth and nose, and go to the emergency room. It’s that serious.

Apparently, the anti-smoking drug Chantix and maybe some others can also cause SJS, which I guessed from the “fatal rash” warnings on the commercials and later confirmed. I idly wonder if the rate of Stevens-Johnson has increased now that more of these drugs are being used.

The other side effect that I truly fear is tardive dyskinesia. Tardive dyskinesia means involuntary, repeated muscle movements, which can affect the face (tics, twitches, grimaces) and other parts of the body (legs, arms, torso, and fingers). Think John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. These movements appear after taking medications such as antipsychotics. Worst of all, the movements may become permanent and a number of people are disabled because of them. There are now medications that treat tardive dyskinesia, but I still wouldn’t want to have it.

Yet, what is the most feared, the most despised side effect of psychotropic medications?

Weight gain.

I see countless comments in online support groups asking about weight gain on particular medications and posts that say such-and-such a drug caused weight gain. A number of people post that they will not take these medications, or will stop taking them, because they can cause weight gain.

Admittedly, weight gain is not often a good thing. It can certainly lead to other health problems. But my point is that many people are more concerned about their appearance than their mental health. 

I’ve struggled with my weight too over the years, and I have written about it (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-7o). But I’ve struggled more with my mental health, which could kill me just as surely as obesity.

There is vast stigma in our society surrounding fat people. That’s undeniable. Fat people are stereotyped as lazy, sloppy, unattractive, unhealthy, and more. Despite recent body-positivity messages and a few clothing commercials that now feature more plus-size women (I haven’t seen plus-size men), this stigma continues virtually unabated.

Of course, there is stigma around mental illness, too. Those with mental disorders are stereotyped as out of control, violent, dangerous, suicidal, and a burden on society. I can see that people are reluctant to add the two stigmas together.

But honestly, is weight gain so very bad compared with the chance to alleviate the misery and suffering that accompany serious mental illness (SMI)? Personally, I prefer to weigh more and not live my life in despair and hopelessness.

Some of the medications I’m on can cause weight gain. Some of them can cause Stevens-Johnson Syndrome or tardive dyskinesia. Fortunately, weight gain is the only side effect I’ve had, and I can live with that. Stevens-Johnson is potentially deadly and tardive dyskinesia is potentially permanent. There are things I can do about my weight if it really concerns me, or I can chalk it up to a side effect of being content, stable, and productive.

Frankly, of the possible side effects, I fear weight gain the least.

May I recommend that you make sure you have a good supply of reading matter on hand? May I suggest the books Bipolar Us or Bipolar Me?

I don’t often review books in this blog, but Lynn Nanos has written one that has caused me to think long and deeply about an important topic, so I felt compelled to share my take on it.

The book, Breakdown: A Clinician’s Experience in a Broken System of Emergency Psychiatry, deals with the involuntary commitment of people who experience schizophrenia, psychosis, some mood disorders, and anosognosia (lack of understanding or awareness of one’s own mental condition). Nanos lays out her thesis logically yet compassionately, with lots of references to back up her opinions.

What Nanos says is that involuntary commitment should be more widely available and easier to accomplish. Her experience as a clinician in Massachusetts involved many instances when she was involved with administering “Section 12” orders for involuntary commitment.

I’ll confess my bias up front. I’ve always been leery of involuntary commitment. As a person with bipolar disorder which was long untreated and un- or misdiagnosed, I have suffered with the fear that I might be committed at some point in my life. I’m a great believer in civil rights and believe that patients should have the right to refuse treatment.

Nanos is changing my mind, at least in the case of psychiatric disorders which prevent victims from knowing their own needs and taking care of themselves. She makes an excellent case that schizophrenic and psychotic patients, especially those with anosognosia, are the most likely of all psychiatric patients to commit violence and be victims of violence. This she refers to as “dying with their rights on,” a powerful phrase.

As it currently works – or doesn’t – forced commitment often leads to a revolving door of hospital emergency department stays, early release from psychiatric units, and the patients who most need help being discriminated against by psych units that turn them away because of their potential for violence and the difficulty in treating them. This results in homelessness, overuse of emergency services, release to relatives ill-equipped to handle a schizophrenic or psychotic person, and other potential dangers.

Nanos thoroughly discusses Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) and other versions of court-ordered therapy and medication. Though these strategies are not without their flaws, Nanos indicates that her experience with them is that they are substantially beneficial and reduce violent behavior significantly.

Breakdown does not imply that there are simple or one-size-fits-all solutions to the serious problems with emergency psychiatry. The part insurance companies and hospitals play in not supplying adequate treatment is not ignored.

Lest one think that this is a dry, academic tome, though, Nanos fills the book with empathetic and sometimes searing stories of people that the system has failed – both patients themselves and the victims of their sometimes violent behavior.

How has Nanos’s book affected my opinions on involuntary commitment and related areas? The criteria she recommends for the procedure are far from superficial: She posits that involuntary commitment should be used only for those who are actively schizophrenic or psychotic and are unable to recognize the nature of their disorder and are unable to care for themselves – especially if they have shown signs of violent behavior or serious threats. (“Unable to care for self” takes the place of the older “danger to self” and includes conditions like homelessness, malnutrition, etc., not just being suicidal.)

Do I now think that involuntary commitment and/or AOT should be easier to accomplish? Yes, with the understanding that easier does not mean easy. We’re still talking about people’s civil rights, and those should not be broached with serious thought and safeguards in place. But my own fears of being involuntarily committed are revealed to have been irrational, a product of my bipolar disorder.

Has the psychiatric “system” broken down to the point where involuntary commitment is a necessary and even a beneficial thing? The answer, sadly, is yes. Lynn Nanos’s Breakdown has convinced me of that.

 

Hitting the Plateau

Back in September, I wrote about my bipolar disorder being in remission and how much I loved that feeling. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m not in remission. I’ve had significant setbacks, though not long-term ones. At one point I felt broken, but when that lifted I felt jazzed. Maybe I’m on a baseline and never wander too far off it. Maybe I’m stuck on a plateau, halfway between mental illness and mental health.

I ask myself, will I get any better?

It’s like when I had my second back operation (micro-laminectomy). When I went for a follow-up visit to the surgeon, I was no longer in pain. But I was slow and uncertain when walking and felt keenly that my physical capacities were diminished. “Will I get any better, or is this it?” I asked.

“You’ll improve,” said Dr. West. “It will take a while, but you’ll feel better.” And he was right. I did. But I still have some pain at times and sometimes I walk with a cane. I may be better, but I’m clearly not totally well. I’m not bitching (much). I know that once your back goes out, it never gets back to 100%. And I am truly grateful every day that I don’t suffer the excruciating pain of a bulging disk and a pinched nerve.

My bipolar disorder is like that. I am no longer suffering on a daily basis. My meds are working and haven’t changed much in years. My mood levelers are doing their job. But I still have symptoms. There are still things I can’t do, or do only with great mental effort. I’ve never been at 100% and don’t ever expect to be. And I am truly grateful every day that I don’t have the in-the-depths lows, the ever-edgy anxiety, for more than a few days at a time.

But I wonder, am I stuck on this plateau forever? Is this as close as I’ll ever come to mental wellness? Or maybe, I think, mental health is an illusion. I can’t remember a time when I was unaffected by my disorder. The plateau itself may be an illusion. Maybe I am still improving, in such tiny steps that I can’t see the change. Maybe a new medication or treatment will come along and remove more of my remaining symptoms. (I’m not counting on that, though.)

My bipolar disorder feels like it’s running a low-grade fever. I can get done my work and my blogs, but little more. I don’t feel in the least joyful. It may be that this is just real life getting me down –  the weather, politics, the endless details and frustrations I have to deal with while we’re rebuilding our house. Perhaps this is just a normal mood swing like everyone gets or a reactive depression to the aforementioned stressors.

That’s one of the constant worries once you have bipolar disorder – not trusting your feelings or your feelings about your feelings. Every setback scares me that I’m teetering on the edge, ready to plunge off that plateau. Realistically, I know that I am as stable as I’m likely ever to be.

My superpower seems to be overanalyzing. I may really be in remission.

Depression lies. Anxiety lies. So, perhaps, does the plateau.

Involuntary commitment. In California, it’s a 5150. In Massachusetts, it’s a Section 12. In Florida, it’s the Baker Act. But right now, we’re talking about Florida. Whatever the Baker Act was meant to do, it wasn’t meant to do it to six-year-olds. Yet in Florida, a six-year-old girl was involuntarily committed for two days of psychiatric evaluation after a temper tantrum at school. The child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a mood disorder.

According to CBS News, a sheriff filed a report, and a social worker stated the girl was a “threat to herself and others,” “destroying school property” and “attacking staff.” Duval County Public Schools told CBS that “‘the decision to admit a student under the Baker Act is made by a third-party licensed mental health care professional'” and that the response was “‘compliant both with law and the best interest of this student and all other students at the school.’”

Florida’s Baker Act was established around 50 years ago and allows authorities to “force such an evaluation on anyone considered to be a danger to themselves or others.” Danger to self or others has long been the standard for involuntary commitment, but until recently, it has seldom been used on young children, especially without immediately notifying their parents.

“The number of children involuntarily transported to a mental health center in Florida has more than doubled in the last 15 years, to about 36,000,” according to a 2019 report by the Baker Act Reporting Center. In another such incident, a “12-year-old boy with autism was taken to a facility in a police cruiser. It was the boy’s first day in middle school and during a meltdown, he scratched himself and then made a suicidal reference,” according to CBS. The boy’s mother says that the school had a plan to follow if the boy made threats, but the plan was ignored.

It’s certainly true that six-year-olds have threatened suicide and some, unfortunately, have completed the act. And 12-year-old boys definitely have the potential to harm themselves and others. But for schools – with the help of law enforcement personnel and mental health professionals – to “Baker Act” children is an extreme interpretation of the law. “The law specifies that minors can only be held for 12 hours before [a mental health] examination is initiated. For minors, notification must be provided as soon as the child arrives at the facility,” according to the Family Center for Recovery. The law does not say that parents must be notified when the child is taken away from the school.

The Family Center adds, “The statute specifically calls for ‘substantial’ evidence, which is [a] much higher bar than simple suspicion. As a result, people cannot be involuntarily institutionalized simply because they’re acting strangely, refuse to seek psychiatric examinations, or have occasional mood swings or outbursts.”

Need I point out that all children, not just special needs children, experience occasional mood swings or outbursts? School personnel are supposed to be trained to handle these situations.

But “zero tolerance” policies for “acting out” and threatening school property have led to such excesses and others, such as the use of in-school restraints and seclusion. Restraints and seclusion are now being called into question, especially since they have been used capriciously and brutally, especially on children with special needs. IEP plans that specify procedures to follow if a child has a meltdown, as with the 12-year-old, and in schools that supposedly have staff trained to handle special needs children, like the six-year-old, are too often not communicated to staff or simply ignored.

Of course, such treatment is the exception rather than the rule. Some states are beginning to enact laws regarding restraint and seclusion. And many well-trained special needs educators would never countenance such treatment of mentally ill or neurodivergent students. But 36,000 children is a lot. Two-day commitment away from parents is excessive for a six-year-old. Police officers taking children away in cruisers before notifying parents is unconscionable. The law specifies that minors can be held for only 12 hours before [a mental health] examination is initiated. For minors, notification must be provided as soon as the child arrives at the facility.

Florida state lawmaker Jennifer Webb has introduced a bill to reform the Baker Act. It includes training for school officials and resource officers and establishes rules on when a parent should be notified that their child might be committed.

“[The Baker Act] should only be used as a last resort,” she told CBS.

 

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