Imagine enduring “a roller coaster ride through hell” in private.
Imagine having to hear your son say that he wants to kill himself almost every day, knowing he attempted to do so once before.
Imagine being one of the 75 million American families touched by mental illness, a topic that only “dominates the national conversation...when something goes tragically wrong.”
“I thought I hated my son,” Stephanie Escamilla said in “'My son is mentally ill,’ so listen up.” “But then I realized it wasn’t him that I hated. It was his bipolar disorder.”
Stephanie’s son Daniel, 14 at the time of publication, suffers from bipolar disorder with psychosis. Prior to his March 2009 diagnosis, he had been diagnosed with ADHD at age 6 and endured his first manic meltdown at age 10. At age 6, Daniel also complained that he heard voices. In the four years before Stephanie allowed CNN reporter Wayne Drash into her home to tell her family’s story, Daniel was hospitalized more than 20 times, and attempted suicide once.
Drash’s story offers an in-depth look into Stephanie’s household; in addition to Daniel, she and her fiancé have three other children between the ages of seven and 10. Stephanie’s mother, who battled brain cancer, also lived in the house at the time of the story. The piece documents the day-to-day life of the family, ranging from Daniel’s stress in school to his psychotic episodes to Stephanie’s efforts to shield Daniel’s siblings from their brother’s severe illness.
Their openness was “what you would hope and dream for,” according to Drash. “The power of the story was the family’s willingness to complete access,” he added.
Drash’s interest in covering mental illness was sparked while reporting on Newtown the week after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Although he didn’t know it at the time, he eventually learned that a closed mental hospital overlooked Newtown, and nearby is “a high-security prison housing the criminally insane.”
“Standing there, I wondered about the state of our mental health system,” Drash wrote in his story on Daniel.
As a result, Drash wanted to find out what life is like for a family living through mental illness--the reality national headlines don’t show. He reached out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the largest nonprofit mental health advocacy group, and they connected him with Stephanie, a board member of their San Antonio chapter. Stephanie was leading sessions at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office on handling mentally ill individuals in crisis, but she and her family wanted to shed light on mental illness for those who are unaware.
Daniel was included in the decision to tell his family’s story.
“I’m going through a lot of stress and a lot of things that no kid should see, no kid should hear--and things you shouldn’t do,” Daniel told Drash. “I just don’t want anybody else to go through that.”
Stephanie requested that Drash refer to her son as “Daniel” throughout his piece, even though that is not his real name. They have different last names, and even though people in their hometown are aware of Daniel’s illness, she didn’t want that label to follow him on the internet when he applies to jobs or college someday. She also requested that Daniel’s face remain hidden in any photos or video taken of him, and so all of the multimedia elements of the piece only show the back of Daniel’s head. Drash and the family discussed this at the beginning of the project and revisited it at the end, when it was decided that a fictitious name was in Daniel’s best interest.
Even though Drash said that he didn’t encounter any real challenges because Daniel’s family was so open, he did note that part of the task of tackling a story like this is to find families who understand what they are being asked. Daniel did have an episode of psychosis in front of Drash, and Stephanie wanted Drash to talk about that episode in the story, even though some families might not want that to be public.
“That’s what you need to cover a story like this,” Drash said.
One of the things that surprised Drash the most while reporting on Daniel’s family was just how common mental illness is. According to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults and one in five children in the U.S. have a mental illness. CNN published a visualization of data provided by NAMI.
“I knew it was something that so many struggle with, but I didn’t know just how much,” Drash said.
The overall reaction to his piece also surprised Drash. He admitted he was slightly afraid that it would be hard to generate interest, but he ended up receiving thousands of emails and phone calls in response. Many of those were from other families touched by mental illness who just wanted to talk to someone--not necessarily to have their story told, but to have someone to listen.
“When you do commit yourself to [telling stories about] mental illness, families are desperate for someone to hear their story,” Wayne said.
Stephanie was also surprised at the reaction and is continuing to share her story; she even set up a separate email account where people could directly reach her. She also created a blog to update the public on Daniel’s progress. She felt inspired by the response, and since the story’s publication she’s taken on a public role in the San Antonio area by speaking at colleges, schools and more groups about mental illness. Because of all of the responses, Daniel also knows that he isn’t alone.
Drash and Stephanie’s family still keep in touch, and in an epilogue updated after the December 2013 story was completed, Drash describes how Daniel’s grades have improved and his therapy sessions have gone from twice a week to once a week. And perhaps most notably, it has been a year since Daniel’s last hospitalization.
Drash’s piece was a finalist for a 2014 Dart Award of Excellence in Coverage of Trauma, and he received a 2013 Award of Excellence from the Atlanta Press Club for digital and multimedia content.