Sunday, April 29, 2018

Girl, 13, tells crowd of 100 about dealing with mental-health issues and their stigma; Paducah Sun reports 'remarkable' story

A 13-year-old eighth grader with a long list of mental-health issues told nearly 100 attendees at the third annual West Kentucky Health and Wellness Summit about dealing with her condition and the stigma that surrounds it, including her experiences with being bullied.

Julia Burkhart, a student at Lone Oak Middle School, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, better known as ADHD, David B. Snow reports for The Paducah Sun.

"When she walks down the hall, you wouldn't know her from any other student," Snow writes. "There are no identifying marks or signs on her to indicate she has mental illness. The problem is the signs placed on her by other people."

At the health and wellness meeting in Paducah, Julia told about being bullied in kindergarten, which she said got worse as she got older. In fifth grade, she said a student who she thought was her best friend started bullying her and that rumors started spreading that something was "wrong" with her -- and the attacks escalated on social media. Snow writes that Julia started cutting herself.

"No one knew how much I was hurting," she said. "I would refuse to go to school just because it was unbearable to step foot in that school."

Julia said school counselors tried to help, but it wasn't until she was diagnosed with manic bipolar disorder at age 11 and entered an outpatient treatment program and changed schools that things started getting better. She relapsed in seventh grade, which led to eating disorders and taking pills "to escape," she said. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia in April 2017 and went back into the outpatient program at the beginning of the 2017 school year, Snow reports.

"I graduated in February from outpatient, and I've been continuing to better myself," Julia said. "And here I am now, speaking about my problems. I take pride in my recovery every day, and I am proud to have gone through this. It's made me realize what's really important."

Snow writes that Julia's experience is similar to what others with mental illness go through.

I think one of the biggest limitations for mental-health access is our own viewpoint of what a mental-health issue is," Dr. Laurie Ballew, a psychiatrist who is medical director of behavioral health at Lourdes Hospital, told Snow. "People have this negative thought process about mental health, not realizing that our brain is the organ that controls our body."

Snow writes, "Ballew said that mental illness is a brain illness, and symptoms generally are seen through changes in mood, appetite, activity or suddenly failing classwork or failure at one's job. Several mental illnesses are caused by having a chemical imbalance, and many are treatable like any other disease."

Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and publisher of Kentucky Health News, called the Sun article a "remarkable example" of how news outlets can help individuals tell their stories about stigma and mental health.

"More news outlets need to report stories like this to help reduce the stigma that still surrounds issues of mental health, behavioral health and drug addiction," Cross said.

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