Content warning: Suicidal ideation, self-harm
Nearly a decade ago, Kai Skaggs was admitted to the ER for suicidal ideation following a years-long battle with mood instability and self-harming behaviors. She was diagnosed with Bipolar II, a mental illness characterized with moods that cycle between depression and hypomania.
During this hospitalization a nurse told Kai that she never go back to school, she would never hold a stable job and she would end up divorced.
“It made me mad,” said Kai. “I know statistically things are harder for people with my diagnosis. But that doesn’t have to be what happens. I knew that I could get better, that I could be stable and that I could do what I wanted to do. That moment was motivating for me.”
Kai didn’t want to be a statistic. She and her husband, Clark, were married prior to her diagnosis and this year they are approaching their 10-year wedding anniversary. Kai, now 32, lives with Clark and their two dogs in Cedar Rapids. She works in the Cedar Rapids Community School District and is currently a paramedic student.
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“I’d want that nurse to see that what she thought would be the reality doesn’t have to be the reality,” said Kai. “People think a mental health diagnosis has to be the end of everything, but it doesn’t have to be.”
Looking back, Kai can see that symptoms of her Bipolar II disorder started to appear in her teen years, but her behavior was often chalked up as “teen angst” or a “phase.” Kai remembers periods of time where she wouldn’t sleep for days and then crash afterwards. In other periods, she remembers feeling so depressed that she wouldn’t shower or get out of bed. The mood swings continued through high school and college.
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“I don’t remember a lot of stable periods. There were a lot of highs and lows,” said Kai. “Then it got to be overwhelming with self-harm and suicidal ideations. That was the point where I thought ‘I can’t deal with this anymore. I need some help.’”
After that first ER visit, there were more visits to the hospital, programs and therapy treatments. Kai said it took 2-3 years for her moods to level out through the right balance of medication, lifestyle changes and a strong relationship with her psychiatrist.
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“I am fortunate that I have a solid support system in my husband and my friends,” said Kai. “Stigma can be shame inducing. Do I really want to go through a partial hospitalization program? Do I really want to do therapy? Once you start, it’s so important to have those people who will cheer you on and encourage you to stick with it.”
Today, Kai is open about her mental health because she wants to help eliminate the stigma around mental illness, treatment programs and coping mechanisms – whether it be going to therapy, using a fidget spinner to calm nerves or asking for a 5-minute break.
“People think a mental health diagnosis has to be the end of everything, but it doesn’t have to be.”
“We have to normalize the things we do to maintain our mental health,” said Kai. “For a while, I didn’t want to admit I was hospitalized because there is such a stigma around it. But there shouldn’t be such a stigma around going to the hospital or treatment. It’s where you go to get help.”
GET HELP: Mental health resources + hotlines
She hopes people will one day view mental illness the same way they view physical illnesses and can learn to be more supportive when someone opens up about having a mental illness.
“The brain is an organ that can sometimes not work right – just like any other organ can,” said Kai. “Mental illness is not necessarily visible. So when people do speak up, have a genuine reaction. Be willing to learn more about it and be open to listening.”
Make It OK is community campaign to reduce stigma by starting conversations and increasing understanding about mental illness. Start by learning what a mental illness really is. Then, find out what to say and not to say when someone opens up to you. You can also help others by sharing your own story to help people know they aren’t alone. Learn more about how you can get involved at MakeItOK.org/Iowa.