Bipolar disorder tormented promising young man
Sarah Burns thought she knew Greg Young as well as anybody.
They’d had classes together at Wesleyan Christian Academy since first grade, and had become especially close during their high-school years. They’d even dated for a month or so as freshmen, but mostly they were just tight friends.
So Sarah was stunned when Greg dropped not one, but two bombshells on her the night he took her to the homecoming dance during their senior year.
It happened as they were driving from Sarah’s home in Kernersville — where they had just posed for photos together — to Greg’s house in High Point, where they would repeat the photo shoot with his parents. Sarah thought her friend seemed a tad off that evening, so she asked if he was OK.
“He said, ‘I really need to tell you something,’” recalls Sarah, now 21. “He told me he didn’t know if he believed in God anymore, and that he was having suicidal thoughts and was really struggling with that.”
You could’ve knocked her over with the corsage she was wearing.
“I cried the whole way to his parents’ house,” she says. “I don’t think I said a word, except maybe, ‘I love you. I care about you a lot. I don’t know what to tell you.’ I didn’t know what to do.”
Oddly enough, Sarah remembers Greg being pretty normal the rest of the night, as if the conversation hadn’t even occurred.
Several months would pass before Greg would officially be diagnosed with bipolar disorder — and it would be another three-plus years before he actually took his life at Niagara Falls — but his parents, Richard and Judy Young, believe the crisis of faith Greg experienced was his first bipolar episode.
It also appears the night of the homecoming dance may have been his first mention of suicide.
“He said he hadn’t told anyone else at the time,” Sarah says, “so I guess he was really struggling with being able to tell someone about it.”
As his bipolar disorder progressed, though, Greg would dance with suicidal thoughts on a number of occasions.
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The bank of knowledge about bipolar disorder grows almost daily, but questions about the complex brain disorder still abound.
The cause remains unknown, though the latest research indicates there may be a genetic component. Possibly an environmental component, too, though scientists are unsure. The disorder appears to be some sort of chemical imbalance, characterized by extreme highs of mania and extreme lows of depression. Stress makes it worse, and mood-leveling drugs can make it better — but, ironically, those same medications can also cause suicidal thoughts.
The disorder often goes undiagnosed, because the individual doesn’t think a doctor can help, or because he or she doesn’t want to admit there’s a problem.
“They’ll just try self-management, which is very often pills and alcohol,” says Dr. Wayne Eastlack, a High Point psychotherapist who treats the disorder.
For those who are diagnosed, counseling sessions can benefit them by teaching them a technique called cognitive behavioral therapy. The technique helps them recognize when a dangerous mood swing is approaching so they can do what’s necessary to prevent themselves from making any irrational decisions.
“In other words, what are some things you can do thoughtwise to keep yourself from doing something irrational or from slipping into a deep depression?” Eastlack says. “If there are things you can do, it gives you a better sense of control, and one thing that a bipolar person feels is out of control.”
That was the case for Greg, who sensed something just wasn’t right within him. The diagnosis floored his parents, though, who say they’d never suspected their son had a mental illness.
“He was normally an extremely outgoing, happy kid who was the life of the party,” Richard says, “but I guess he was also experiencing some depression, which he did a very good job of hiding most of the time. You might call him moody sometimes, but he never showed to me any serious signs of depression.”
Once Greg was diagnosed, the Youngs read up on bipolar — also known as manic depression — and they began to worry.
“When I saw the statistics on suicide, as a mom, I became very concerned,” Judy says, citing a statistic that as many as 25 to 50 percent of people with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once. “And then when I looked up his medication, I got even more concerned, because the label said it could cause young men between 18 and 24 to have suicide ideations or to commit suicide.”
That’s true, according to Eastlack. For many bipolar young men, their prefrontal cortex — the decision-making part of the brain — doesn’t fully develop until their mid-20s, “so prior to that, they could be quite at risk” of making irrational decisions, he says.
In Greg’s case, he switched medications several times as his doctor tried to find the right drug and dosage — that’s also not uncommon for bipolar patients, Eastlack says — but each new drug carried the same warning about suicide risk. That fact still troubles the Youngs.
“I’ve often wondered whether Gregory wouldn’t have been better off without the meds — it might’ve been the meds that caused his suicide,” Richard says. “That goes through my mind all the time.”
Indeed, why give someone with a mental illness a drug that can actually cause suicidal thoughts? The answer reveals a chilling truth about bipolar disorder.
“Because,” Eastlack says, “it’s even riskier to not be on the medication.”
* * * *
The meds appeared to be helping Greg some, but he still had struggles, and it frustrated him to no end.
“Greg was so good at everything he did,” Judy says. “Whether it was music, his schoolwork, whatever jobs he had, he did great, and this disorder discouraged him so much, because he thought he could conquer it. It got him down because it was one thing that he just could not control.”
Greg’s pain spurred more thoughts of suicide — thoughts he shared with only his closest of friends. Though he didn’t actually try to take his own life, two of his friends — Sarah Burns and Tim Panyanouvong — say Greg experimented with cutting, a form of self-injury in which the person makes small cuts on his or her body as a way of curbing emotional pain.
Greg also leaned on his faith. Judy found a writing in her son’s journal from 2011 in which he wrote, “Lord, I’ve prayed and prayed for healing, and it must not be in your will. I surrender.”
Meanwhile, Greg’s meteoric life hurtled forward. After graduating from Wesleyan in 2010, he left for Houghton College — a Christian liberal arts school in Houghton, N.Y. — on scholarship. There, just as he’d done in high school, Greg excelled academically, wowing professors with his seemingly effortless grasp of class material and his voracious appetite for knowledge.
Judy worried about her son, though, especially being a 12-hour drive away. She even wrote a letter to one of Greg’s favorite professors, expressing her concerns and asking if the professor might keep an eye on Greg to make sure he was doing OK. She asked others at Houghton to do likewise. As far as she could tell, though, Greg’s medication and weekly counseling sessions seemed to be helping him.
“He was doing everything he was supposed to do,” Judy says.
Nonetheless, her worry factor increased when Greg came home in December 2012 — for what would be his final Christmas — and opened up about his medication in a candid conversation with his mother.
“You don’t know how difficult it is still making my 4.0 (grade-point average) and being on this medication,” he told Judy. “I don’t like it — I hope I can get off it. It just makes you feel tired and makes you have no emotion. You just feel like a zombie.”
Judy reminded Greg about the suicide warnings associated with his medication, but he assured her he would seek help if he needed it.
“Don’t worry,” he told her. “I’ve got this under control.”
Two months later, though, a clearly out-of-control Greg found himself standing at the edge of the falls — literally — and this time, there would be no turning back.
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About bipolar disorder
•Bipolar disorder is a persistent illness with recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last from one day to months.
•More than 10 million Americans have bipolar disorder. Although it can occur at any point in life, more than half of all cases begin between the ages of 15 and 25. It affects men and women equally.
•Bipolar disorder can be hard to diagnose and often requires the expertise of a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist.
•Symptoms of mania can include feeling overly happy for an extended period of time; an abnormally increased level of irritability; overconfidence or an extremely inflated self-esteem; increased talkativeness; decreased amounts of sleep; engaging in risky behavior, such as spending sprees and impulsive sex; racing thoughts, jumping quickly from one idea to another; easily distractable; feeling agitated or jumpy.
•Symptoms of depression can include diminished capacity for pleasure or loss of interest in activities once enjoyed; a long period of feeling hopeless, helpless or low self-esteem; decreased amount of energy, feeling constantly tired; inability to concentrate and make simple decisions; changes in eating, sleeping or other daily habits; being agitated or slowed down in movement, speech or thought; thoughts of death or suicide attempts.
•The states of mania and depression can occur in distinct episodes or can switch rapidly, even multiple times in one week. A severe bipolar episode may include psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations or delusions.
•Effective treatment plans usually include medication, psychotherapy, education, self-management strategies and external supports such as family, friends and formal support groups.
•Not everyone responds to medications the same, and at times, multiple types of medication must be assessed. Medications often include mood-stabilizing medications and some second-generation antipsychotics. For the most up-to-date information, visit www.fda.gov.
•Psychotherapy and self-care interventions are essential components in the treatment of bipolar disorder. Most useful psychotherapies generally focus on understanding the illness, learning how to cope and changing ineffective patterns of thinking. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one popular example.
— Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org)