FamilySmart* for Child and Youth Mental Health

I had the extreme pleasure of attending a two-day conference this weekend called ‘Today’s Children and Youth, Tomorrow’s Families: 2014 Youth and Family Consensus Conference.’  I just arrived home safely and I am writing this blog with pure enthusiasm and excitement as I am moved, touched, and inspired.

FamilySmart – A Philosophy and Practice with Impact

I learned that FamilySmart is a values-based approach to listening, understanding, and responding to the mental health needs of children, youth, and families.  The Institute for Families is the brainchild behind the enlightening philosophy and practice.  It is intended to help families connect with communities across systems to identify and act upon what works and is meaningful to improve child and youth mental health.  The conference was intentionally created to further define and refine the meaning of FamilySmart.  The point of the conference was to create consensus statements and compile them into a report.

The conference as a whole was extremely participatory and all attendees were encouraged to share their personal stories in light of the child and youth mental health theme.  During various workshops I listened to a range of participants: mothers shared their struggles with the mental health system, a number of fathers were frustrated with feeling helpless, and I admired the bravery of two youth, Lucas Mattiello and Brent Seal, who voiced their feelings of empowerment while having had gone very public with their own lived experience.

Youth Jamming AKA Youth Engagement

The conference did an excellent job of engaging and including youth on their agenda for the weekend.  It was the first example I have ever seen of youth taking such a lead role at a conference full of adults and the results were both effective and also entertaining.  Lucas and Brent made me laugh numerous times during their presentation with their light demeanor and humorous commentary.  It was refreshing.

The conference organizers urged people to write down questions on large boards in the hotel hallways for youth, and I posed a question that lies heavily on my mind especially with the upcoming commencement of the Bipolar Youth Action Project.  I posed the question: What coping strategies do you practice in regards to wellness?  I was thrilled when the youth shared my question in large bold letters on the PowerPoint slide and their answer included a number of items such as having meaningful employment and volunteer activities, engaging friends, parents, siblings, working ‘with’ their psychiatric teams/families to having amazing role models.  They focused on the mantra For youth – By youth, which by no means is meant to be exclusionary to family/community support, but simply echoes that youth must be leaders in establishing their own mental health wellness plan.

Themes and Nuggets from the Conversations

The term nugget quickly became the name for the outcome, take-away or main theme that was the result of conversations from around the tables.  Nuggets included an array of findings and some were the following:

  • the importance of mental health language,
  • the comparison of the treatment of physical illnesses in the system to that of a mental health crises,
  • the need for creating a space for meaningful dialogue, having families directly in the mental health system,
  • establishing and considering the needs of all family members,
  • questioning the definition of family, and
  • the need for support during all types of transitions in a youth’s life.

The Institute has committed to drafting a final report to be launched May 7, 2014, which is Child and Youth Mental Health Day.  Just as treatment and support are urgent for a youth posing with a mental health challenge, so are the results needed from the conference.

A FamilySmart Bipolar Babe

During my own mental health crisis – diagnosis with bipolar disorder and attempted suicide, I was wholly on my own in my younger years during this trauma.  My parents love me but they did not live in the same city as I did and were unable to truly be there for me in any real emotional or physical sense.  In the past, I was so privy to dealing with all of my mental health issues on my own because I didn’t know there was any other way.  I am in awe of the people that I met this weekend because they are weaving support systems, enacting connectedness, and really they just CARE immensely.  I now know I am one of them. Mental health challenges are not meant to be spearheaded by oneself, instead we must include all facets of the community at large, including our medical and educational professionals, peers, siblings, parents, other youth, friends, and so much more.

FamilySmart is not just about how families can help their youth with their mental health challenges, but we are ALL a family and together we can make a meaningful and profound impact in the lives of youth struggling with their mental health.

LungLeavin' Day – Celebrate Your Life

I received a very special request today from a gentleman named Cameron Von St. James.  Eight years ago, his wife Heather was diagnosed with mesothelioma; a rare cancer that kills most people within 2 years of diagnosis.  She had just given birth to their daughter Lily, and was only given 15 months to live.  After a lifesaving surgery that included the removal of her left lung, LungLeavin’ Day was born.  On February 2nd, 2014 they celebrated 8 years of Heather being cancer free!

The purpose of LungLeavin’ Day is to encourage others to face their fears!  Each year, they gather around a fire in their backyard with friends and family, write their biggest fears on a plate and smash them into the fire pit.  They celebrate for those who are no longer with them, for those who continue to fight, for those who are currently going through a tough time in their life, and most importantly, they celebrate life.

All too often we live in fear and when it came time to write on my own plate I typed ‘I fear dying young.’  It just came to my mind.  I supposed the digestion of all the medications over the years and the constant blood tests to check the functioning of my liver and kidneys tend to worry me.  I sit in bed and often gasp for air at night due to my anxiety condition, which often leaves me breathless at the best of times.  I need to learn somehow that I don’t need to be afraid anymore and that all of our days are limited and frankly that is okay.  We all die and we never know when our time is done here, we just know that someday it will be and that I have no control over that.  I look to Heather for inspiration as she had her actual lung removed and that takes guts and she encourages me to celebrate the life that I have and not dread the time that may be taken away from me.        

This year, the family was not asking for money, or donations of any kind, they were just asking bloggers to participate and spread the word about LungLeavin’ Day and created an interactive page that tells the full story of their special day here 

Although the day has passed, I hope you will still check it out and share it on your blog too. It would really mean so much to Cam and his family and to the Bipolar Babe.

Thank you!

It Starts Now!

It has been a difficult year and after putting it in perspective I realize how much my weight gain has affected my mental health.  For many people, weight gain and medication go hand in hand but I have to admit that the more depressed I get about the weight gain, the worse I eat, the more lethargic I become and the more I hate myself when I look in the mirror.  I have tried every fad diet possible and even had a failed attempt at a personal trainer.  I have tried to lose weight, but it seems at every turn I am unsuccessful.  As I write this article, I am discontent with my attempts and I wonder what I am doing wrong.  I may have it figured out.  I am too extreme in my attempts and the personal trainer took me from point A to point Z in a matter of weeks where I probably would have been more successful if someone would have taken me through the steps incrementally at a slower rate but on a happier note I have decided to join a GROOVE class only once a week for one hour a week…slow.  This will work up to other exercises down the road. 

I am not in my twenties anymore and the slim figure that I one saw and adored is gone forever.  I was undiagnosed bipolar at that time and I have to remind myself that the only thing that I was truly happy with was my figure and the rest of me was falling apart.  I would never want to return to those days, I am better for who I am today.

I have to accept that I am not moving into my past wishing that I had back what I had lost, but moving forward into a new body.  I have to accept that I am embracing sanity over vanity and my body will shape itself as it will, which may never be what I truly want it to be, but I must be happy with the best that I have.  I have to try and not let the medication pull me down on the couch because in doing that my depression will simply come over me and make me even more depressed.  I have to remind myself 'baby steps.'  No matter how trite it sounds, it's true. 

I actually went to the gym for the first time in months yesterday and ate healthy for the entire day, it was one day and it is leading into the next.  It has to start somewhere and for me it starts now!


Simply the B.E.S.T.

I attended a Quality of Life Community Engagement Day in Vancouver a few weeks ago with CREST BD. We were discussing assessing wellbeing via the web.

They shared the most interesting ‘tool’ called the BiQoL scale which is an online questionnaire to empower people with bipolar disorder to manage and improve their health.

We assembled into focus groups and discussed the BiQoL scale and my first opinion was that the name needed to be changed to B.E.S.T – Bipolar Empowerment Survey Tool.  I thought this was the ‘best’ name as CREST BD even used the word ‘empower’ to describe the BiQoL scale and it got me thinking what it meant for younger people.  (I will call the BiQoL scale B.E.S.T for the purpose of my blog.)

Youth are tech savvy and ought to be contributing to the development of the B.E.S.T.  Youth know what appeals to the tech savvy population, what options to highlight and how best to design an online platform for other youth who are indeed the techy generation.  Youth are more inclined to sit down at the computer for a mere ten minutes and assess their well-being rather than sit in a doctor’s office with a pencil and paper for a half an hour.  Results are tabulated instantly and we all know how our Y generation love to have things fast! 

Bipolar disorder generally has an onset between the ages of 18-25 and the B.E.S.T may be useful in having youth who are not diagnosed think about their health and consider potential symptoms by taking the questionnaire.  The B.E.S.T is not necessarily a tool to diagnose mental illness but is definitely something that gets people thinking about and assessing their mental health and this is a positive and powerful component of the B.E.S.T.  Young people are curious and they are inclined to take a variety of tests or questionnaires when they are online, so what an amazing opportunity to be able to take the B.E.S.T and benefit them in their assessment of their mental health and have fun at the same time!  B.E.S.T could potentially have a very positive and significant impact on youth because it is assessing things such as sleep, nutrition, mood, and social interactions.  Even if youth do not have a mental illness it brings these important items to the forefront, questioning their relevance and the impact that they play in their lives.  We all know that these types of facets are important, but rarely are we reminded at the B.E.S.T of times.  Lastly, this tool reminds us that we not only need to take care of ourselves now but we need to pay attention to our mental health and monitor it while using the B.E.S.T and returning to it to evaluate how we are doing over a longer period of time.

The B.E.S.T is an innovative and amazing tool that is ground breaking for our youth and all alike and will no doubt make a difference for those wanting to be empowered in the journey of exploring, monitoring and managing their mental health.

Bipolar Youth Action Project

We all say how important youth are, how vital their participation is, and see value in their contribution.  In light of this, the Bipolar Disorder Society of BCs (BDSBC) – Bipolar Babe project ( recognizes that we all need to be paying more attention to younger generations affected by bipolar disorder. 

The research team at CREST.BD ( and BDSBC have joined forces to develop a grant proposal called the BIPOLAR YOUTH ACTION PROJECT submitted to the Vancouver Foundation.  The project will engage youth who live with bipolar in order to develop research skills and study alongside their peers.

What does this mean?  We plan to first launch a pilot project for the grant and we have invited six bright youth with bipolar disorder to participate in a 1.5 hour session to brainstorm ideas on how they and others can stay well while living with bipolar disorder. 

They may pose questions such as:

 – what techniques do you use to stay well with BD?

– do you think any of these techniques are particularly useful for people in your age range?

– do youth face particular problems in terms of staying well with BD compared to adults?

– what's the best way to share information about how to stay well with BD with other youth with BD?

As someone who has struggled with bipolar, I realize how important such a project is.  I have experienced serious bouts of psychosis, mania and depression and my hope in life is not to have others suffer as I have. We all need to find ways to stay well, especially our youth that live with bipolar disorder.    

There are additional benefits to creating a youth based project such as the Bipolar Youth Action Project: not only do youth gain the opportunity to become researchers themselves, but relationships will be formed and peer support circles created along the way, up and down Vancouver Island.  The youth, while brainstorming answers regarding wellness from their own research, will also be working in a supportive and motivating environment.

The space that CREST BD and BDSBC are planning to create will allow youth to express their research findings and have them apply their knowledge through multiple avenues, according to their needs and the needs of their peers.  The goal for our two organizations is to create a unique and valuable experience and encourage the wellness of youth living with bipolar disorder. 

It’s a significant win for everyone and thank you to the wonderful youth who have agreed to participate in our pilot project component of the project this August 2013, you are making bipolar youth history! and


As I drove home the other day on the highway I came to a stop behind a car and tears started to well down my face.  I had no idea what could have been the issue, was it a sad song?  Or a touching commercial on the radio about blood donation?  It wouldn’t be there first time!  Then it struck me that I had been told the day before that my landlords came to the decision to sell their home.  They anticipated that we would come with the house but we cannot risk being asked to leave upon new possession.  This means a move which equals BIG change.  I had a friend who once told me that she liked her life predictable and stable – the same.  I thought “How boring!”  Now I realize what she is talking about.  It jolted some unknown emotion inside of me a day after being informed, but the funny thing is, I never anticipated feeling bad or even sad.  I initially felt kinda neutral and I find it interesting how emotion can stir itself up without even knowing. 

Change.  It can be positive in many senses but for someone with bipolar disorder it can be particularly difficult. I work best in a stable environment, and I do like that I have a committed and consistent relationship with my partner.  I appreciate both places of employment as I am salaried and don’t have to worry about getting paid.   I work best with a schedule in many senses –day and night.  Lastly, I like my home to be welcoming, stable and predictable.  I now realize my home of 4 years is being uprooted and yes it is making me emotional.  As we look for new suites, I feel neutral, even after putting in an application for an amazing condo.  I questioned this but my friend said “Your meds are working or you are reacting in a neutral way that is working for you.”  Regardless, I must look at all of this as an opportunity, a time to celebrate new beginnings and a chance for excitement.  I will try my best to face change with my head up! 

Happy or Hypo-manic?

I often have to stop myself sometimes and ask “Am I hypomanic or just really happy?”  At times it is difficult to know where the illness begins and ‘I’ end.  Having bipolar disorder can be confusing, but regardless, I am very happy and I am not concerned about charting this mood.  I facilitated our 25+ women’s group recently and nine people attended.  When it was my turn to share I told the group that I won an award from the National Council out of Washington D.C. for mentorship and our society has been awarded $10,000!  I also get the opportunity to travel with Natasha Tracy from to Las Vegas where I will accept the award.  My amazing new friend Natasha nominated me and I am so grateful for everyone that has supported me in my work. 

Winning this award has prompted me to reflect and I often forget how far I have come.  I recall being 32 and attending a seminar called the Landmark forum where the idea of a Bipolar Babe t-shirt was born.  I always held onto a dream that the world would know my story.  I wanted to share with others so people didn’t have to experience the same things that I went through.  Self-medication, disabling depression, a suicide attempt, and a psychosis that brought me to my knees.  I didn’t have anyone there to guide me, hold my hand, or direct me to resources.  It is amazing to have created peer-support groups where people receive this kind of care and more.  Also, I have been presenting in the classroom as of late, and when I read the kids’ feedback I am reminded of ‘why’ I tell my story.  It’s to let that teen know that they are NOT alone in their struggle, and to encourage another that they can indeed understand mental illness and treat everyone with acceptance, empathy and respect. 

I never expect recognition for the things that I accomplish, but I am thankful that I have received it.  I am happy being the babe and doing my Executive Director thing and at the end of the day I am content…no I am extremely happy in a real and genuine sense and it is amazing. 

Introducing Bipolar Blonde

Introducing my friend 'Bipolar Blonde', Jamie Van Gessel.  Jamie is an amazing young woman who attends the Bipolar Babe Teens2Twenties support group.  I asked her to be a guest on the Bipolar Babe Blog as she is an amazing writer at 16 years old.

She is also a young advocate and a role model to many in her age group.  Please welcome Jamie…

As sixteen year old girls living in Canada go, I’m fairly average on the surface. Granted I was born in Pakistan and have lived in the Netherlands, but from a first impression you’d never guess. If you saw me at Starbucks with friends you’d see that I have blonde hair and blue eyes, that I’m fairly tall and slim, and that I like to talk. If you knew me as an acquaintance you’d know that I’m in the Challenge program, that I’ve had some crazy nights, and that I dropped Chemistry. If you knew me as a friend you’d also know that I’m designated gifted, that I’m usually late and that I don’t always show up for class.

Even if you knew all that you’d be surprised when I tell you that I have bipolar disorder: your eyebrows lift and you mentally take a step back, and you say something like “I had no idea, you don’t seem like it”.

But what “seems like it” anyways? Hallucinating or being extremely happy, like a fat kid in a candy shop, and then instantly switching to being unable to move and being house bound?

Being crazy, like someone you’d see on a cop show, a rat in a never-ending maze? Sorry to mislead you with my fairly “normal” outward appearance, I had no idea you had a set description of what being bipolar meant.

See, bipolar is a very misinterpreted illness, with many stereotypes attached just like countless other mental illnesses: people with bipolar should snap out of it, they’re exaggerating. They’re aggressive and unpredictable, they’re dangerous. It doesn’t help that it’s a taboo topic, even more so than depression and anxiety. The moment I tell someone that I’m bipolar their perception of me changes completely. They can’t help it, it just happens. What I’m hoping to do, as are countless others, is trying to change the severity and negativity of that new point of view.

Bipolar affects at least 1% of the population at one point in their lives (Statistics Canada), and it affects both men and women equally. Bipolar disorder is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as being “characterized by at least one manic or mixed episode (mania and depression) with or without a history of major depression”. It usually first appears during adolescence, and with adequate care is manageable. However, many circumstances result in extreme cases such as hospitalization and suicide because of delayed diagnoses and people who delay seeking treatment.


One percent of the population is affected—that’s 1 in every 100 people you know. If you have 500 Facebook friends, you probably know at least 5 people living with bipolar.


Bipolar disorder is different from typical teenage mood swings that are classically associated with adolescent years: sudden changes in behavior generally caused by a shift in hormones. The difference with bipolar is the frequency and extremity of these switches. In true cases these similarities mean bipolar can go unnoticed and untreated for months on end while the teenager suffers in silence because “they’re not depressed, they’re happy as well. Must just be the fact that you’re a teenager.”

As well, bipolar can be misdiagnosed as depression which can actually be quite dangerous. When I was in grade 9 I was sent (after a waiting period of more than a month, which is quite short for our system) to a psychiatrist who prescribed Sertraline—an antidepressant. It was only a year later, after having stopped with the psychiatrist and the medication and having visited the emergency room regarding self-injury and an emergency psychological evaluation, that a different psychiatrist told me that antidepressants can make mood swings worse and more frequent for someone with bipolar. After lots of mood-charting and consultation she added a mood stabilizer called Abilify to the Sertraline (which I’d restarted under the supervision of my family doctor) and proceeded to keep tabs on me once every few weeks making sure the medicine was helping and the side effects weren’t too bad.

Before the Abilify I was tried on Lithium and Seroquel XR—both mood stabilizers—under which I had fairly intense side effects. With the Lithium the skin around my eyes became extremely dry, cracked and irritated. With the Seroquel XR’s sedative effect I couldn’t wake up on time in the mornings. Now don’t forget that these medicines have helped thousands of people, but as my psychiatrist says—there is no magic pill that works for everyone.

Not only is finding the right medicine important, it’s equally important to have a healthy lifestyle: enough sleep, a healthy diet, physical exercise and counseling. As I’ve learned multiple times over, there’s no silver bullet that makes it all better, you’ve got to work at it.

Bipolar for me looks like this: I get something called “hypo-mania” which is less extreme than full blown mania. When I’m in this phase I’m “high”, sometimes very happy, usually louder than normal, my mind races, I make lots of plans, I’m excited and ambitious, I take risks both metaphorical and literal, making this phase also a dangerous one. Contrary to what you might think you can be suicidal while being in an “upswing”, and this is worse because you’re more likely to act on it whereas if you were bedridden from crippling depression.

After a certain period of time I switch to depression, which manifests with me sleeping for much longer than normal, being unable to get out of bed in the morning, wondering about the meaning of life, wanting to disappear, hurting myself, and being uncharacteristically sad to an extreme level.

I stay on “normal” ground for periods of time, but on a bad day I can switch from hypo-mania to depression and back again more than 4 times, and on the other hand depressive episodes can last for several days.

So there you go, a snapshot of what my bipolar looks like. You might never guess because I like to pretend it isn’t happening and I’m a pretty good actor.

However acting won’t be enough when it comes to legal matters. Because I’ve sought out professional therapy the fact that I’m bipolar will remain on my record for 7 years, and the courts can use it against me if they so wish. As well, it could affect my career choice after high school and limit my options, i.e. if I were to pursue a career as a police officer, the process would be a lot more arduous than for someone else. This is an archaic system, but there are people looking to make changes to create true equality for people like me.

The funding given to mental health is inadequate. The fact that it takes months of waiting lists to see a counselor and months more to see a psychiatrist is unacceptable. It discourages people from even trying to get help. Some offices of child and youth mental health have to resort to only serving those who are extremely suicidal.

This is not okay. You shouldn’t have to ask whether or not someone’s child is suicidal, and on hearing “No, they’re just really sad all the time” have to say “we have to put you on our waitlist then, it shouldn’t be more than 6 months”.

I know the game, I’ve been through dozens of community support members and counselors. My phone contacts are full of “Emergency number” “Crisis Team” “Crisis Line” etc. I have a crisis plan, I know what I’m supposed to do when I hit a depressive episode. I’ve known I have bipolar for about a year now. And it’s discouraging, after all this time, to still be trying to achieve being stable. But what gets me through it is knowing that I’m on the right track, and sometimes it’s not enough to know that—because I’m 16 and shouldn’t have to be monitoring my mood and following the crisis—but when I look at how I can use my struggle to help others, it’s all worth it.

I’m nervous about telling my story to the world. There’s a lot of people who think that my being bipolar is a private matter, something I shouldn’t publicize. Personally I couldn’t care less about people knowing—I wouldn’t hide the fact that I were diabetic and honestly I don’t see the difference between acknowledging either. You need to monitor both, they’re both with you for life, and you can live your life completely normally if you take care of yourself. But for some reason, me publishing this is either brave or attention seeking, it’s either groundbreaking or inappropriate.

I have some friends who think badly of me because of this; they don’t understand it, I scare them, it scares them. Their disapproval over something I can’t control hurts, and it hurts even more when they expect me to be extremely responsible about it. I’m still a teenage girl, and I still want to do teenage things, and am still trying to come to terms with the fact that I can’t.

However my friends are extremely rare and wonderful, they’ve helped me a lot as have my counselors and family. My parents have had a difficult time trying to figure out how to support me but they’ve done a fantastic job. It’s not easy for them, but they do it anyway. My mum takes a half day off work every time I have a psychiatrist appointment, and my dad drives me to all my meetings. It’s hard for everyone who’s important to me—friends and family—to accept that I can be so unhappy I’d hurt myself, but the way they’ve continued to encompass me with support and love is incomparable.

Coming to terms with mental illness is hard to do, but it’s important, and I hope from the bottom of my heart that each and every one of you try your very best to do so. There are extraordinary resources out there—Bipolar Babe in BC being one of them. And for any of you going through some bad stuff, there’s hope. If you’re in need of help right now, call a crisis line.. If you need to talk to someone, a school counselor can be a wonderful thing. If that feels too personal you can always go to a youth clinic for access to a counselor without your parents knowing (although there is a waitlist) or you can ask your parents to contact your local Child and Youth Mental Health center. As you can see, there are options, and the most important thing is that you keep yourself and those around you safe.

I am bipolar. That is something I still can’t always come to terms with. I’ve had opportunities denied because of it and I know that the path to recovery is still a long one. But by putting one foot in front of the other, and by continuing to bust myths around the illness I’ve got, I know I’ll get to live a “normal” life just like anyone else.

If you made it through this article, thank you. I really appreciate it. Thank you for listening.


Visit Jamie's blog at:

McDuff to the Rescue: A Discussion about Bipolar Disorder

I have the biggest smile on my face right now! I just read the children's book 'McDuff to the Rescue: A Discussion About Bipolar Disorder' and it really warmed my heart. I recently received an email from the author of the book named Terry Champagne and she shared this little gem with me. The book is crafted to be appropriate for three to eleven year olds and a new book will be forthcoming pertaining to twelve to nineteen year olds.

I adore how Terry illustrates a penguin named McDuff as the pal to the very sad young girl named T.C. It is often difficult for children to understand the consequences of bipolar disorder, so I embrace such a wonderful story. I enjoy how the book emphasizes that mom's behavior is not T.C.'s fault, but it is because of an illness called bipolar disorder. The book works to explain a difficult situation to a child that ought not to be lied to or left in the dark.

Growing up with a mother that has bipolar disorder, I empathize with T.C and only wish that I knew my mom had a doctor that was looking after my mom. I never heard anything about my mother's illness until she jumped out of a car in a suicide attempt, or heard she was in the hospital yet again. Why was I not allowed to visit my mother? I still ponder this question often as an adult.

This book brings me hope that other children won't have to go through the same thing I experienced, which was confusion, fear and my own childhood depression. I remember being sad like T.C. and if only I had my own McDuff to tell me that everything will be ok.

Having mental illness in the family can cause complications in communicating the situation to the child, but Terry Champagne makes it a simple message delivered by a very loving penguin.

I also enjoy how the book offers medical and educational resources, but the most profound thing about the book is that it also supplies workbook type pages for kids to share what they are feeling about their experiences with the situation at hand.

If you are a teacher, caregiver, parent, sibling or anybody that has a child in their life, please purchase a copy by contacting Terry at: [email protected]

Terry also kindly offers a free ten minute consultation-coaching session with the book. She cares deeply about the subject and having been a teacher for several years, she understands how best to reach out to children.

Thank you Terry for introducing me to McDuff, it truly brings several tears to my eyes because I only wish I had met him sooner.

A Guest Post by Jessica Lynn Gimeno – Host of the FlipSwitch Podcast!

Jessica Lynn Gimeno works for The Balanced Mind Foundation.  She is the author and host of Flipswitch, the award-winning weekly podcast & blog that helps teens and 20-somethings understand depression and bipolar disorder… (  In her free time, Jessica also runs a blog called Fashionably ill: The Cancer & Autoimmune Girl’s Stylist at  Jessica graduated cum laude from Northwestern University with two majors. 

Disney star and pop sensation, Demi Lovato, was the first celebrity to publicly support Catherine Zeta-Jones when Zeta-Jones' publicist came out on April 13, 2011 and said the star was seeking treatment for Bipolar II.  Because Demi had not revealed her bipolar diagnosis yet, I found it strange given the age gap between the two stars that Demi was the first celebrity to publicly applaud Zeta-Jones.  I know Demi hangs out with fellow Disney Star, Selena Gomez and Selena's boyfriend, teen sensation Justin Bieber.  But I didn't exactly picture teenage Demi spending her weekends riding horseback with (41-year old) Zeta-Jones and (66-year old) husband Michael Douglas (or whatever it is the couple does for fun).  But mental illness doesn't discriminate-it strikes the everyday person and the famous person and as we see in Demi's case, it also strikes the young.  Despite her youth, Demi's approach towards treating bipolar shows wisdom beyond her eighteen years.  The lessons Demi shows us can be applied outside of recording studios––we can use them online, at school, at home, at work––basically in our everyday lives. As some of us know all too well, mental illness isn't just for pop stars.  But, thankfully, neither is mental wellness.

But first–Very quickly–for people unfamiliar with Demi's work, I will break it down.  I confess that I myself didn't fully comprehend how big the 18-year old really is until the story of her bipolar diagnosis broke on April 20, 2011.  However, even if she did not have bipolar, the sheer magnitude of her accomplishments is mind-blowing.  Check it out:

–Demi had 2 albums that debuted at #1 and #2 on the Billboard charts.

–Demi had her own TV show, Sonny with a Chance, on the Disney Channel.

–Demi was touring the world with the Jonas Brothers.

–Oh, and did I forget to mention she dated Joe Jonas for three years?

 (For those of you who don't speak Teen Beat, Let me translate:  If this were 1964, this would be like dating a Beatle!  If this were 1990, this would be like dating a New Kid on the Block!  Dating a Jonas Brother = Dating Teen Royalty.)

Demi began her career as a child appearing on Barney & Friends.  As a teenager, in 2008, at the tender age of 15, she was catapulted into stardom after she starred in the hugely successful Disney movie Camp Rock alongside the Jonas Brothers.  As previously mentioned, the teenager also headlined her own Disney TV show, Sonny with a Chance. Aside from brief speculation about scars on her wrists (Demi used to cut  herself) revealed in October 2008 pictures, Demi never received much bad press, which is remarkable in our TMZ-blog-all-about-it-is-nothing-scared-anymore?-world.  Basically, she was not a starlet known for spoiled or wild behavior.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Demi shocked people when she hit a backup dancer in May 2010 while on tour.  Shortly afterwards, her family scheduled an intervention.  Then, Demi stopped touring and filming her show.  In October 2010, she entered treatment at the Timberline Knolls treatment center near Chicago.  While she was being treated for eating disorders and cutting, she found out she has bipolar disorder.  The star ended her stay at the center in January 2011.  In People magazine dated May 2, 2011, Demi says, "No matter how tough it gets, I'm determined to fight this…I've never been more peaceful or happy in my life.  What's important is to help others get to this place."

Here are 4 Life Lessons I learned from observing Demi Lovato:

1.  Put health first.  I know lots of adults–especially parents who tell us to put our health first while taking on a million commitments themselves (the PTA, church, carpools, hosting Thanksgiving dinner, late work hours, spearheading new projects at work, etc).  It's easy to  pay lipservice to this but it's hard for people to walk away from commitments and actually put health first.  Demi has decided to resume her music career but stop filming her popular TV show because her health is more important to her. In her People interview, she said, "It made sense for me to leave the show to focus on my music…In the studio…all of my confidence is in my voice.  I don't know if I could handle being in front of a camera with my body right now."  What's that you say, you're not sure how this applies to you because you don't have your own TV show?  Well, it actually applies to all of us.  Demi admits to saying yes to huge workloads when she was manic.  We can all moderate our level of commitment.  For example, I've known AP students with mood disorders who had to learn to spread out their AP classes through their junior and senior years instead of taking 7 AP classes in one year.  How about being involved in 2 extracurricular activities instead of 3 activities?  If you have bipolar, don't say yes to every commitment when you're manic.  It's no secret that stress is a trigger for depression or that there are only 24 hours in a day, and yet sometimes it's hard to say no.  But if Demi Lovato can walk away from a hit show, surely, each of us can learn to say no and put health first.

2.  Make Wise Choices Daily because Wellness is a Daily Battle.  In People magazine, Demi said 'I'm fighting everyday to be healthy."  Her management of her eating and bipolar disorders didn't end when she left the treatment center.  She knows that she has to make choices everyday to be healthy. Demi's scars on her wrists have healed.  Where those scars once were, she now has tattoos (which she revealed to Robin Roberts in her 20/20 interview) that say "Stay Strong."  Routine helps.  One of the things Demi does to monitor herself and her eating disorder is eat breakfast with her father everyday and have dinner with friends on a regular basis.  For those of us with clinical depression or bipolar, we can commit to take our medications (if we've been prescribed meds) daily and see our therapists on a regular basis–not just sporadically at times when things get overwhelming.  As with most illnesses–both mental and physical–successfully fighting a mood disorder is something that has to be done everyday through wise choices.

3.  Don't listen to the Critics.  There will always be critics.  Demi reveals that other children bullied her in elementary school and called her fat.  As you can see in her photos, she's obviously thin.  Demi says no one at Disney or her TV show ever told her to lose weight–they never put any pressure on her.  She does admit that she would look at blogs online and read nasty comments.  (One time when I was watching Beyonce do the Single Ladies dance on YouTube, I read a comment from someone who actually called Beyonce fat!  Another viewer responded, "If that's fat, I want to be fat." The point is: No one can please everyone.  You and I shouldn't waste our energy trying to find complete acceptance.)  Even for non-celebs, it's very easy to find someone who doesn't like you–it's much easier to find someone willing to criticize your personality, appearance, whatever, than it is to rebuild deflated self-esteem.  How can we avoid the critics in a world where being called somebody's "friend" is just one click away? Well, don't spend time with people who gossip too much–avoid classmates who make lots of unnecessary negative comments about people.  You know who I'm talking about.  Avoid online chatting and physically hanging out with people you can't trust.  People like that can chip away at your self-esteem. Don't make your whole world accessible online either–I know it's hard to comprehend in a Facebook/Twitter world, but it's not necessary to put up the pictures of every minor event and major milestone of your life online.  

4.  Build Your Support Network.  Demi admitted that she was manic when she hit her backup dancer but she had no idea she had bipolar at the time.  In depression or mania, we can all do things we regret.  We should follow Demi's example and apologize to the people we hurt. In multiple interviews, I've heard her take full responsibility.  First, own up to mistakes while admitting you have a mood disorder.  Then, reach out to the right people.  If you have 400 "friends" on Facebook, I'm guessing that not all of those 400 people would be ideal confidantes in dealing with something like depression or bipolar disorder.  In her People interview, Demi discussed her joyful reconnection with Selena Gomez who reached out to her the first week Demi was in treatment.  Follow Demi's example; Reach out to people you can trust in your family and other social circles.  

To conclude, Demi's discerning attitude and candor in talking about bipolar disorder are refreshing. Bipolar or not, young or not-that-young-anymore, there are practical applications for each of us if we just think about her example and take her lessons beyond the Disney parking lot and into our homes.

-Jessica Lynn Gimeno