Victoria teen speaks out about her bipolar struggles

Ten minutes after speaking out about bipolar disorder, Jamie van Gessel is still trembling. It takes guts for a teenager to go public with a microphone in the middle of Victoria about anything, never mind mental illness.

“You have bipolar — you are not bipolar. It might change how you act in a certain situation but it doesn’t change who you are,” she said after taking the stage at Stigma Stomp Day at Centennial Square.

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“I’m 17 years old and it sucks,” she told anyone within earshot at the second annual celebration of stereotype-busting. For van Gessel, that means lots of sleep and no alcohol.

Van Gessel took a pro-medication stance, saying that trying out several drugs helped stabilize her mood swings.

Sometimes the combined meds “numb” her a bit, but they also allow her to live a happy life.

“They’ve kept me alive,” she said later.

She also credits Andrea Paquette, executive director of the Bipolar Disorder Society of B.C. for founding Bipolar Babe — an online and in-person meeting place for teens and 20-somethings to talk things out.

Paquette has done an amazing job, she said, of inspiring young people with mental illness to accept themselves.

Bipolar Babe tries to remove the shame and devastation felt by many people, starting with a stigma so powerful people are afraid to even talk about it.

On its website, Bipolar Babe cites common misconceptions that equate mental-health problems with weak character, an inclination to violence and that people should “just snap out of it.”

Van Gessel has spoken to her church community and to classmates at Esquimalt High School about bipolar, but telling her boyfriend’s parents was difficult, she said.

“I have such a big internal stigma that I could barely tell these people I’m really close to.”

Despite everything she knew, she had the feeling she shouldn’t be talking about it.

“And they already knew, that was the funny thing, and they were totally fine with it.”

The stigma has made her fearful of revealing her illness when applying for jobs, she told the crowd.

She was relieved to hear later that the B.C. Human Rights Coalition suggests that if a condition doesn’t affect a person’s ability to do a job, there is generally no need to disclose it.

“You should not be asked specific questions about present or previous health problems, WCB claims, or any absence due to stress or mental illness,” the coalition’s website states.

Van Gessel hopes for the day that discussing mental illness will not raise any more eyebrows than talking about diabetes or a broken leg.

Meanwhile, she’s willing to go around “yelling from the rooftops.”

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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