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

Dying for Help: A stark look at teen mental health, Part IV »Play Video
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."

Roughly one out of every 10 teens suffer from mental illness, and many may not even know it.

In our continuing series, the story of Ashley, promising one day, lost the next.

"I didn't know what was going on. I thought it was normal to do the things I was doing," 19-year-old Ashley Nommensen told us from her Bakersfield home.

As a child, Ashley was a natural ham, expressive with a talent for the stage.

"Very driven, very good in school, very vivacious, always engaged," says father Neil Nommensen.

"We used to say to each other, we're not going to have to worry about Ashley," says mother Mickie Nommensen.

Life was good for the Nommensen family. Then, when she got to the third grade there was trouble. It came as a misdiagnosis of asthma, steroids causing weight gain and relentless teasing at school.

How difficult was it gaining the weight and going to school at that time?

"It was difficult because I was itty, bitty so tiny and all of a sudden third grade hits, I'm gaining all this weight," says Ashley.

Still, Ashley excelled in the classroom until junior high. The close knit family went on a cruise. It was an annual Spring break getaway. But during the cruise, Ashley was sexually violated.

"And I didn't know about it til two months after. She didn't tell me, but during those two months is when she pretty much broke down and everything was changing," says Mickie Nommensen.

The Nommensen's say the change happened literally overnight. One day, while moving their other daughter in Tennessee, they got a call from Ashley's grandmother.

"She'd be up, 24 to 48 hours, non-stop. She was just so much energy," says Neil.

"When they called me and said, our family doctor said she's bipolar, something's going on, I lost it," says Mickie.

The Nommensen's were devastated. They described Ashley's once bubbly, feisty personality as a person possessed.

"I mean, I was a mess, I was so scared, so scared," says Mickie.

"I'll be quite honest, going through it, as a parent, you don't know what to do because one minute they're doing 90 miles per hour, the next, they're out and then they wake up," says Neil.

They quickly educated themselves on Ashley's bipolar condition, sought out help, psychiatrists and hospitalized her. But their experience led to what Neil calls a "systematic nightmare."

"It had gotten really bad to where she was real clingy to me and told me she wanted to die," says Mickie.

"The Nommensen's desperate search to get help led them the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood. It became a turning point in their lives.

"Ashley was very, very disturbed," says Doctor James McGough who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

Ashley was just thirteen when he first treated her.

"She was slurring her speech. She was having trouble walking she was very, very agitated," says Dr. McGough. Dr. McGough says Ashley's severe mental illness is rare for a young teen. His evaluation: bipolar, but over medicated. He says what happened on the cruise he doubts significantly impacted her mental deterioration. Six years later, Ashley has seen a dramatic improvement.

"Gradually, we began with the anti-psychotic medicines. We were able to withdraw those without difficulty and over time mood stabilizer medicines, we were able to withdraw to the point in her senior year she was med free," says Dr. McGough.

Today, Ashley is a high school graduate. She is studying to be a psychologist at Bakersfield College in the hopes of helping others suffering from mental illness.

"Today, she's doing great, fantastic. Life is difficult. She struggles and things that most people take for granted, is difficult for her," mother Mickie.

Ashley's advice to parents whose kids are mentally ill?

"Don't be afraid. look for the understanding of it. Try to sit down and talk to them and be a friend," says Ashley.

Ashley remains off medication. However, parents Neil and Mickie say the safety net of going back on medication is always there. Their advice: understand the illness, find out who can help and understand the system.