How do bipolar children interact with the world?

part 1 2


"I got in trouble more than, like, anyone in the school, during like middle school. Uh, it kind of gave me the trouble maker reputation." - Eric

"My teachers were telling me, -"Erin you're going like 0 to 60. You need to calm down and think before you act.' And it was just like impossible for me. You know I'm like, 'Well, let's see how you feel when you know your medications are being switched and you were bipolar.'" - Erin

"One of my teachers that I hate, was like, 'Well, you need to calm down, you need to calm down. Do you want to color?' And I'm like, 'I don't need to fucking color!" And then she sent me to the principal's office, and I got all mad at him, and started yelling and swearing at him, and he just locked me up in a room and wouldn't let me out." - Athena

"It got to the point where I was fighting with some of the kids in the school. And they were like, 'Ok, we can't help this girl.'" - Erin

Eric sitting at home with his mother and father.
photo by Steve Schapiro

Wilbraham Middle School is where, two years ago, Eric Rancke won the dubious distinction of third most detentions of all time. Today, he considers that a badge of honor. But his mother Conni doesn't remember that period so fondly.

"The principal didn't buy any of this stuff about his illness," says Conni. "Eric got labeled in the principal's head from day one as a brat. Everything my husband and I tried to do he saw as over-indulgence. Eric's sixth grade social studies [teacher] said to me in a meeting, 'I have to tell you, I think he has you completely snowed. He's manipulating you. He's fine.' Not only was he not fine, he was actively hallucinating in her class."

For Erin, school had always represented one more wall of people who didn't understand her. Her mother Sherry could barely get her out of the house in the morning.

"She was paranoid," says Sherry. "She was stressed. She wasn't learning anymore, at all. In 7th grade, I wrote that I wanted her tested. They said that she was very bright and this was not affecting her education."

Sherry, Conni, and Mary each found out, through different avenues, that federal disability law gives their children some rights. They asked their schools to provide accommodations to help their children learn: anything from daily counseling sessions to longer assignment deadlines. But schools have discretion in applying the law, and with all three children, the administrators at first balked.

"When parents come in and ask for certain considerations, it can be misinterpreted that the parents are asking for a coddling, or we use the term "enabling," says Tom Philpott who directs special education for Eric Rancke's home district.

"Basically, schools have done an abysmal job addressing the needs of children with emotional and behavioral disorders," says Tammy Seltzer, an attorney with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. and author of a 2003 report on how schools cope with mentally ill children. "National studies have shown that anywhere from five to nine percent of all children have a serious emotional, behavioral problem, but schools identify only less than one percent of those children. Schools tend to view children with behavioral problems as problem children rather than as children who have a condition that needs special attention."

Schools admit they were caught off guard by the number of children coming in with a bipolar diagnosis.

"Before, it was 'attention deficit,'" says William Pfohl, president-elect of the National Association of School Psychologists. "That was the diagnosis that was popular five to 15 years ago. The schools did accommodate and adjust to that, and I think it's gonna take the same period of time for schools to adjust and accommodate to this particular diagnosis. But we really have to know how many kids does this actually involve, and I think the jury's still out on that."

Following several appeals, Eric now sees an academic counselor several times a week, and his parents have taught his teachers to recognize Eric's oncoming mood shifts.

"They don't think of me as being like a bad kid, they think of me as going through a manic time," says Eric.

And last year, Eric made the honor roll for the first time.

Things are not going as well at school for Athena.

"What happened?" Mary asks.

"I walked on the bus, and he called me a child molester," says Athena as she bounds through the door of her trailer this afternoon, looking upset. "He sat down, and he walked by up the aisle, and punched me on the nose."

Her mother, Mary pulls out a notebook and pen.

"You got on the bus," says Mary. "This guy punches you, and he called you a child molester?"

Mary says she knows Athena's version of her bad encounters can be suspect, but she feels school administrators never give Athena the benefit of the doubt.

"The other kids tease, harass, taunt, call her names, do all kinds of stuff to her, and nothing's been done about it," says Mary. "So they figured out easily, 'We can harass Athena. She'll explode, and she'll get into trouble.'"

Athena and Mary are especially on edge following a recent incident in the school cafeteria. As Athena tells it, a boy kicked her under the table. She went to kick him back, but she kicked the wrong boy, and hard. The upshot is Athena is facing assault charges in juvenile court. She could end up in a disciplinary program, or worse, a juvenile lock down. Meanwhile, Mary has been called by the school's truancy officer on another problem and could be charged with neglect. That's because Athena doesn't always make it to school, and often shows up late.

"All I can do is explain to him that 'Yeah, I have a hard time getting her up in the morning,'" says Mary. "And I was telling him that she's been very upset, very depressed, particularly since these incidents have happened. And I do my best to get her up in the morning. I yell, scream, rant, rave, kick the bed. I mean, I can't physically drag her across the room."

Athena could soon be moved out of her regular school, just as Erin was four years ago.

Erin's family lobbied to get her placed in the Merrimac Collaborative School, an alternative public school about half an hour from their home in suburban Boston.

"I have a range of kids," says Principal Emma Weiss. "Kids involved with the Department of Mental Health, kids involved with the Department of Youth Services, with the court systems."

Weiss says about half her students are diagnosed with bipolar illness, but she's not convinced they all have it. However, Erin, she says, is a clear-cut case.

"When she's on medication, Erin is able to have conversations with you, participate in our community meetings, and add a lot of good insight, and remain calm if somebody says something to her that may not be the nicest thing in the world," says Weiss. "When Erin goes off of her medication, she can be laughing one minute, sobbing the next minute, the minute after that screaming because she's so angry about something as small as, 'He looked at me the wrong way.'"

The ratio at the Merrimac School is five students to one or two staff, so it's expensive. A school district can pay up to $29,000 to send one child here, compared to four or five thousand in the regular public school. But that ratio typically means staff members are more attuned to each student's mood swings.

"If it's a student we know well, and we start seeing the true signs that they're either heading into a manic phase or they're getting a little depressed," says Weiss, "we would be notifying parents, having regular contact with therapists and psychiatrists."

Of course, even special schools have limits. Before Erin's last hospital stay, she had a tantrum at her school that ended in her slamming a glass door and kicking a trash can. When Erin found out she was almost suspended for that, she told her mom she was furious.

"Tomorrow," says Erin, "I'm gonna go in and talk to Emma about that."

"Well, I suggest you approach it in a gentle manner, or not approach it at all and let me take care of it," Sherry says to Erin. "The fact is, the only thing that will happen if you confront her is you'll get suspended again."

Erin's teachers say she's learning to control her behavior, especially during her weekly community service where she tutors severely autistic children.

"Erin has worked really hard to establish some sort of relationships or friendships at the school," says teacher and Erin's advisor Betsy Lytle. "This is a kid that came to us from the middle school, that used to kick holes in the wall, and has never kicked anything here. This is a kid who was very isolated and ostracized from a good share of the population. So there was many trust issues for her to even stick her neck out a little bit to form relationships. And as any good bipolar will do, it's either all or nothing."

Continue to part 2

©2018 American Public Media