Dying for Help: A stark look at teen mental health, Part I

Dying for Help: A stark look at teen mental health, Part I
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- For several months, Eyewitness News has been documenting the struggles of teenagers battling something that many people are afraid to talk about, yet it affects families in devastating ways: mental illness.

The intent of this five-part special series is to break the stigma associated with mental illness and to give a voice to those "dying for help."

“I took an overdose and slit my wrist at the same time,” said 17-year-old Alissa Heffernan, who has tried to commit suicide three times. "I wanted to die, but at the same time I didn't, and I wanted help."

About four years ago, the adorable little girl and straight-A student suddenly changed before her family's eyes.

 Alissa Heffernan, now 17, is seen in this undated childhood photo.

“At the beginning, I thought it might be just typical rebellion. But then it started becoming more inward towards herself, abusing herself, withdrawing, crying,” said Alissa’s mother, Kim Heffernan.

By eighth grade, Alissa's grade point average sunk, she missed weeks of school and started the practice known as cutting, leaving scars on her body.

“When I bleed out, it feels like all the anger's going with it and I can finally rest, like all the poison's coming out,” said Alissa.

Alissa's mother described just how bad it has gotten.

"I’ve had chairs broke on me, I've been chased by hammers, I've been taken after with knives, I've been pushed down. I've been verbally abused,” said Kim Heffernan.

Alissa was finally diagnosed as bipolar with depression and social anxiety.

Like all mental illnesses, a person's thinking, feeling, mood and ability to relate to others is suddenly disrupted. Those close you, who you thought you knew, become a shadow of themselves.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, fewer than half of the children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive any mental health services in a given year, and more than half of students with a mental disorder, 14 or older, drop out of high school.

Finally, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24. The majority are mentally ill.

So what is going on inside someone’s brain who is mentally ill?

“We actually, probably know less than people think we know,” said Dr. James McGough, who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles Medical Center.

“We are learning that in some diagnosis on average, brain structures are smaller or brain structures are larger where certain areas of the brain under work or certain areas of the brain overwork," McGough said. "But there's no kind of unifying theory yet. I mean, nobody really knows what's going on inside the brain of any individual except to say these people are really suffering."

McGough believes a combination of the environment and so-called "runs in the family" hereditary traits cause many cases of mental illness. But, he said, little research into childhood mental illness has been done.

“Perhaps some day we will know ahead of time, before they even have symptoms and again to intervene then help the parents know how to parent better or get certain kids into social situations that will help them develop that would really be the future,” the doctor said.

Until then, teens like Alissa are hopeful her artistic creativity on paper may one day lead to her dream of becoming a chef. But for now, she takes it one day at a time.

Does Alissa fear things could get worse and get violent again?

“I'm scared everyday that it might happen. I’m doing my best to prevent it,” she said.

Right now, Alissa is taking medication for her bipolar condition. She sees a psychiatrist every week at Clinica Sierra Vista in Lamont.

She's attending a school for "at risk" students, and her mother said compared to where she once was, she's doing great.