September 13, 2016 at 12:07 PM EDT
Original Article Published on PBS.org
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — On a hot summer day last month, Sydney, 15, and Laney, 8, were enjoying their last two weeks of freedom before school started. The sisters tried to do flips over a high bar at a local playground.
“You’ve got to pull your hips into the bar, like you’ve got to kick up like that,” explained their mother, Selena.
“I tried to kick! I did this — you told me not to stick out,” said Laney indignantly.
Both girls have been diagnosed with mental illnesses — Sydney with bipolar disorder and Laney with a similar illness called disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. The family asked that their last name not be used to protect the girls’ privacy.
School has been a real challenge for them. That’s not unusual for the 1 in 5 children with a mental illness. They often suffer anxiety, difficulty focusing and social challenges. Half of them drop out of high school, in part because many schools don’t manage to meet their needs.
Selena has spent the past eight years trying to get the girls the resources to help them succeed. Like a lot of parents of kids with mental health issues, she’s had to be her children’s biggest advocate.
“It’s definitely a journey. It wasn’t easy,” she said, even though she’s a school guidance counselor herself.
“I used to cry the night before, because I didn’t want to go to school.”
Sydney describes class as “boring, distracting. It’s hard to pay attention. It’s overwhelming.” She struggles to focus or process information, which makes her so anxious and depressed that she often has to leave school in the middle of the day.
She wants to be a rock star like Courtney Love. Every so often she pretends to take drag from a bubble gum cigarette. But she’s an extremely sensitive kid, and school has been a painful experience.
“I used to cry the night before, because I didn’t want to go to school,” she said.
Laney on the other hand is a ball of chaotic energy. At school, she often gets frustrated and acts out. Sometimes, she is sent home.