For years, San Francisco resident Susan Page couldn’t explain the overwhelming sadness that enveloped her as early as sixth grade.
Page, now 26, tried to confide in her mother Lynne Page about the absolute despair she felt. But, despite her mother’s support, waves of dejection continued to crash down upon Page and she weaved in and out of gloom until, as a sophomore in college, suicidal thoughts bubbled over and she wound up in a doctor’s office facing a mental health diagnosis.
“It was a feeling I couldn’t explain and it was a feeling that I felt that I shouldn’t be feeling,” Page recalled. “I remember one week, I felt so depressed I couldn’t do anything. And I was in the hallway in a hoodie just out of it; I wasn’t myself.”
Page is far from alone in her struggle with mental illness as a youth. In fact, the latest data — up to 2013 — from the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development shows a rise in California’s children and youth mental crises.
In 2003, there were 38,818 mental health-related children and young adult discharges from hospitals around the state. That number increased to 48,832 in 2013 — a rise of about 26 percent in a 10-year period.
That’s why Page today is on the Youth Committee of San Francisco’s Mental Health Board, passionately advocating for adolescent well-being.
“I was always a huge introvert. I didn’t like myself at all. I struggled with depression from sixth grade to college,” Page said during the board’s Nov. 9 meeting.
Page’s journey has been quietly and deeply painful. Despite knowing all too well the stigma that’s still such a huge part of mental illness, Page, now co-chair of the Youth Committee, has been frank and forthright with her story.
She was in the sixth grade and remembers feeling that something in her brain was not quite right. She talked to her mother about it and, in hindsight, Page believes that both she and her mother didn’t quite grasp what was happening.
When Page was in high school, she went through periods when she felt incredibly dejected. “I’m having my sad,” she remembered telling her mother, who advised her daughter to cry it out and talk it through with her.
Page acknowledged her mother’s role in her struggles gratefully. For her mother to accept Page’s sadness and always be willing to deal with her emotional frailty affirmed and validated what Page felt and perhaps, in some way, deferred her diagnosis until she was in college, away from the immediate support of her family.
Lynne Page, Susan’s mother, was hesitant to speak about her daughter’s challenges and worried about how the exposure would affect her daughter. But Lynne said that she emphasized Page’s support system.
“It’s hard. I tried to help her intellectualize it a little bit and I’m not sure how helpful that was,” she said. “I guess the main thing is to make her feel that she’s not alone. That she’s got her family and many people who love her behind her.”
During her sophomore year of college, Susan began to have manic and depressive episodes and was admitted to a hospital in Denver when she reported having suicidal thoughts. The on-call doctor gave her a questionnaire. When she filled out the form, the doctor came back within a few minutes with his bipolar disorder diagnosis.
“That was interesting at that time,” Susan Page said. “I felt I needed more of an intake instead of a 15-minute questionnaire.” She told her parents about the diagnosis, and they immediately took her out of college and brought her back to California, where she started therapy and medication.
Page now lives with her boyfriend, Akshay Godgone, in The City. They met online and have been together for two years. Godgone said he uses meditation and breathing techniques to help calm Page down when her thoughts are racing.
“Mostly, what I do as a support system is that I’m just around her and try and tell her that, ‘I’m around you, don’t worry,’” he said.
Family or caregiver involvement is an important aspect in the treatment of mental health disorders. “I think family, for me, is really important,” Page agreed. “But you can’t force family members to support you if they don’t understand what you’re going through.”
Many people, in Page’s opinion, give up on family relationships, not allowing them a chance to work.
To complicate the treatment and prognosis of behavioral and mental health problems, every person is unique and every reaction is different and often unpredictable. Lynne Page reflected on the challenges some parents face.
“You do the best you can to know your children and let them know, no matter how they’re reacting to you, that you love them, support them and are trying to do the right thing,” she said. “That’s about all you can do. It’s pretty, pretty hard, because some kids will reject that, and you still have to be there for them even if it’s unpleasant for you.”
Susan Page sees her role on the Mental Health Board as being a voice for youth to “really make youth feel comfortable speaking up about their mental challenges.” The Youth Committee is a sub-committee of the mental health board and, according to Page, the mission is to promote the best mental health care for youth in San Francisco.
“I’m the only youth on the Youth Committee and I’m really hoping to get more youth involved so we can really be a youth committee that is fully with youth, for youth,” she said.
To illustrate the power of peer advocacy, Page related an anecdote about her neighbor’s granddaughter: The girl was recently diagnosed with a mental health challenge and felt comfortable talking to Page about her struggles. It was the first time this young girl was giving voice to her own battles and, with Page’s advice, went on to write a thesis paper on her issues. It meant a lot to Page to be part of another person’s healing process.
“She’s doing really well and, in the last few years, she’s grown so much. Me being there is a good thing, but she’s doing well on her own. She’s adapted to all these techniques and practices,” Godgone said of his girlfriend.
Godgone mentioned that he, too, had suffered from depression and knows how heavy that burden can be.
“I knew that mental health is big, but nobody talks about it. … So, I love that part of her work,” he said, referring to Page’s advocacy work.
One of Page’s coping strategies is to blog and write about her experiences. She is often brutally honest about herself. This is an excerpt from a blog written by Page for Young Minds Advocacy:
“When I started to truly try and come to terms with the fact that something was preventing me from functioning on a daily basis, the only word that I could think of was that I was ‘CRAZY’ and that scared me. To show no weakness is something every human being learns despite what culture or ethnicity you relate to. This means that even when we are struggling, it is just as easy to act as though nothing is wrong. No one could tell I was hurting because I was able to take cues from the people around me and learned how to do the simplest things, like smile, when all I wanted to do was cry.”
“Inasmuch as I’ve been able to help her, I feel that I can go to her and get great perspective,” Lynne Page said, a touch of pride in her voice. “She has a lot of maturity and insight into human nature. For her own experience, it’s taken her on a path that has really developed her insight quite a bit.”
Susan Page’s experience illustrates some of the tough choices young adults, their parents and caregivers confront as they manage their mental and behavioral traumas.
“I have great faith that [Page is] going to make choices that are good ones for her,” Lynne Page said.
Mind Your Health is an ongoing series about mental health issues in San Francisco.