Bangor teen breaks the stigma of mental illness

By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN
Posted May 18, 2012, at 5:39 p.m.

When she was 15 years old, Hannah Chaisson was admitted to The Acadia Hospital after her mother caught her cutting herself following a fight between the two.

A week or so into her stay, Hannah’s grandmother developed a life-threatening condition that prompted family members from far away to travel here to be by her side.

Hannah could have left Acadia to visit her grandmother and see her relatives, but she didn’t feel strong enough.

“My mother didn’t understand that,” Hannah told me during an interview this week. “She told my relatives that I was staying with a friend.”

Stigma.

Hannah’s mom had not quite found the courage to tell family members that Hannah was actually in a mental health facility suffering from severe depression and anxiety.

“That was a very hard time for us,” Hannah recalled quietly. “My grandmother was so ill and I was in here.”

Hannah did not feel ready to leave Acadia at that time because for the first time in her life she was experiencing a profound sense of relief. For the first time she could speak out loud about the frightening and overpowering feelings that had shaped her daily life for so long.

“I know that I can’t adequately express the immense relief that I felt. Just not feeling the need to hide it was an incredible thing,” she said, laughing at herself for tearing up. “The people here are very real and very genuine. It was sort of like being understood for the first time in my whole life.”

While at the facility, Hannah was able to keep up with her schoolwork through the onsite schooling program that encompasses one wing of the hospital.

“It’s about two hours a day that they spend here, but it goes a long way in enabling them to keep up,” said Lynda Rohman, director of development at the hospital.

Returning to Bangor High School was still a challenge.

The question, of course, was: “Where have you been?”

Stigma.

It wasn’t easy. She felt safer at Acadia.

She relied heavily on the coping skills she had learned at the hospital as she trudged through balancing her life between the stresses of the high school hallways and the safety she felt inside the walls of the hospital during her outpatient therapy.

But her life was remarkably better.

One day while scanning through a local newspaper, Hannah’s mom saw a notice seeking people to audition for a local film called “The Road Back,” a film produced by Acadia and Portland’s Project AWARE and written and directed by Faith Bishop, a Hermon High School student.

The film explores the stigma around youth and mental health problems.

With her mom’s encouragement Hannah showed up for the auditions. While she didn’t get a leading role, she found a place and camaraderie with the crew.

Hannah was happy on the day we met. She smiled often, even when tears filled her eyes, when she spoke of the impact her treatment has had on her life. She doesn’t cut herself anymore. She has a great relationship with her mother.

She is a senior with enough credits that she had to take only one class this semester. She gets her cap and gown next week. She graduates on June 3.

She starts classes at the University of Maine at Augusta in Bangor in the fall.

“I have a plan,” she said with a smile, “and plans are good.”

Oh, and on March 21 when the film “The Road Back” premiered to a standing-room-only crowd at Husson’s Gracie Theatre, Hannah was asked and agreed to open the show.

The petite, soft-spoken teenager stood before the crowd of 500 or so attendees and told them that she had a mental illness. She told them of her battle with depression and anxiety. She told them of her very real and very personal road back.

And her mother and her grandmother were in the audience and very, very proud.

For just a moment, before agreeing to open the film, Hannah had some hesitation. She worried about opening herself that way to a roomful of strangers.

“But the truth is that if the stigma is ever going to go away, someone’s got to say something,” she told me this week.

When we parted company on Thursday afternoon, Hannah asked if I could write this column using just her first name.

“Just Hannah is good,” she said.

I agreed instantly.

Later that evening I had a voice mail message. It was from Hannah.

“It’s OK to use my last name,” she said. “It’s Chaisson. That’s C-h-a-i-s-s-o-n.”

Stigma be damned.

A battle of the bands will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, May 26, at the Husson University campus center. The event pits the Retro Rockerz against the Stone Doctors, and guests can vote for the winner. All proceeds will benefit The Acadia Hospital’s youth services education and outreach programs. For more information, go to www.acadiahospital.org.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/05/18/living/bangor-teen-breaks-the-stigma-of-mental-illness/ printed on August 1, 2014