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  • Writer's pictureJoss Burns

Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder: A family’s story of dealing with serious mental health conditions

Updated: Mar 1


A collage four family photos depicting life moments between a man and wife dancing, on vacation, and  two images with the two children.

All names in this article have been changed to shield the identity of those involved. Article includes stock images.


In the late 1980s, Ron and his wife Jane made the life-changing decision to become foster parents for infants whose parents couldn’t look after them. The couple were licensed to provide shelter for up to seven children at a time (including their own children) and Jane dedicated herself entirely to providing them with love and care. 


Ron recalls the house always being busy. Babies were constantly coming and going as they found new homes, with most only staying for a short time. In total, Ron estimates that they took in around 20 children, including infants,  before Jane’s untimely death from terminal cancer. 


From fostering to adoption


After Jane passed away, Ron was unable to continue fostering as before, and had to rehome the children – all except two. As Ron puts it, “Shaun and Mark just stayed.” 


The two children, who are now aged 36 and 32 respectively, came from difficult family situations and showed signs of mental health difficulties from a young age. 


Shaun’s struggle with schizophrenia


At the age of six, Shaun started showing signs of schizophrenia, suffering from extreme psychosis in his early years. “When I was diagnosed it was very rare, I was very little,” Shaun explains. Generally, signs of schizophrenia manifest from the age of 18 on. 


In fact, Shaun was so young that the doctors were hesitant to name it as such. As Ron says, “The psychiatrist said that he would never want to diagnose a child as having schizophrenia.” Shaun didn’t receive his official diagnosis until the age of 12. 


Throughout these years, Shaun struggled with his condition and says he hears voices all the time. “Sometimes these voices say vulgar things,” he explains. And yet Shaun has managed to regain control of his condition, saying, “They are always there but I can phase them out.” 


Early life with schizophrenia


It wasn't always this way. Shaun’s erratic behavior proved challenging for his schools to manage. He moved around as a child, going to two alternative schools before entering the special education class of a mainstream institution. 


“I was embarrassed about my mental illness,’ Shaun says, often keeping to himself in his early years. Although not officially diagnosed until 12 years old, Shaun had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and had failed all known medications for schizophrenia. 


“The doctor didn’t want to discharge him at 12,” Ron recalls. “He was psychotic. I remember him telling me about the people who lived in the ceiling.” 



Two adolescent boys on a ski lift with snowy mountain background

Clozapine: The last option


Eventually, the psychiatrists reluctantly turned to their last option, a drug called Clozapine. It is an exceedingly rare medication that is heavily restricted by the FDA. There is potential for extreme reactions and it can affect the patient’s immune system. It is even more rare to prescribe it to a 12 year old. 


Although risky, the medication had almost instantaneous effects, according to the father. Shaun says he can still hear the voices, but he no longer responds to them. Today, Shaun continues taking the medication, monitors his white blood cells, and lives a normal, independent life. 


He enjoys playing basketball, works in a warehouse for a construction company, and collects shoes. “I’m real into shoes,” he admits, “I’m a sneaker-head.” 


Mark and a life with bipolar


Until the age of 18, Shaun was entitled to Medicaid because he was in state custody, which funded all of his treatment. From specialist psychologists, residential periods in care, access to special education, and the medication that has been so helpful, Shaun received a lot of support. 


His foster brother Mark, on the other hand, didn’t have the same access to state-sponsored support. Mark was successfully adopted as an infant. However, once Mark’s background was disclosed, the family decided they couldn’t keep him.


“[Mark’s birth mother] thought she had a serious venereal disease,” Ron explains. “So, the initial foster family wanted Mark removed ASAP.” He was placed into some Catholic charities and made his way to Ron, Jane, and their family as a foster child. 


Managing behavioral issues 


From an early age, Mark showed signs of violent tendencies, which became more extreme in his teenage years, eventually being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Ron and Jane’s first step was to see the pediatrician, but he was unable to deal with the situation. 


They also gained access to a psychiatrist, who Ron and Shaun still see on a regular basis. However, even support of this kind was unable to help Mark. Although diagnosed with bipolar disorder, no medication appeared to have any effect. 


As Ron says, “he was violent against everyone and eventually he had to be placed in a residential facility for behaviorally disturbed children (...) from the ages of 11 to 15.”


Run-ins with the law


Even with the support of a loving family, Mark struggled with his mental health. He has had various run-ins with the law over the years, with the most serious constituting a federal offense after Mark attempted to rob a bank. The federal system doesn’t have mental health courts, so Mark was put on trial for serious charges.


“You don’t get to attempt to rob a bank, even though you didn’t succeed,” Ron says. “This is big-time stuff, it’s not jaywalking. He was facing six to eight years.” 


As a result of this offense, Mark was held in custody. Eventually, due to Mark’s background and circumstances, the prosecutor dropped the charges, meaning he doesn’t have a permanent record. The prosecutor also helped to get Mark placed in a mental health facility, where he was for two years.


Hope for the future


Since then, Mark is showing signs of improvement. Like his foster brother Shaun, he lives alone and independently. He has been working a number of part time jobs, and has recently accepted a full time position. He also has ambitions to get a college degree, which would undoubtedly open up new doors.


Regarding both of his sons, Ron sums up the current situation succinctly. “They are both doing a lot better,” he says.


Advice for dealing with extreme behavior in childhood


Ron and his family have spent over 30 years providing love and support for his children, whether adopted or otherwise. 


How has Ron managed to do this? For Ron, the advice is simple – make use of all resources that are available to you. 


“Get in touch with a mental health agency that handles extreme behavior in childhood,” he says. “Find a medical doctor and get a referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist who handles these kinds of behaviors.”


He does admit that “it’s pretty rare, actually, and hard to find” and recommends looking for agencies that can provide this kind of support, mentioning Thresholds as a good example.


The social workers at these agencies will also provide social support in the community, which has been invaluable for Ron. The power of social support and recreational activities cannot be overstated. Ron even goes so far as to say, “It’s a miracle that Shaun and Mark were able to get into sports through these agencies.”


Finally, Ron is very clear. If there is extreme behavior or violence, get the police involved. He recommends going to the police beforehand and letting them know about the situation. In this way, when there is an issue, they can come prepared.


Are you worried about your children’s mental health? At Mental Health America of Illinois, we have tests to help you assess your child’s needs. Seeking support is the best thing you can do for them. For assistance, contact our office at 312-368-9070 or info@mhai.org.

Do you have lived experience with a mental or behavioral health condition? Your story may impact the lives of others searching for understanding and hope. Contact MHAI for blog guidelines if you wish to tell your story. Publication is not guaranteed.

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