A family's mental health journey: Emergency, illness, recovery, stability

Amanda Lipp in her childhood room in Fair Oaks, California, in December 2015.

Story highlights

  • Nearly one in five Americans experience mental illness in any given year, but fewer than half receive treatment
  • A 2008 law guarantees that mental illnesses be covered "at parity" with any other disease

In March 2010, Pam Lipp received the call she'd been dreading for months. She figured it would come from one of three places: the police, the hospital or the morgue. Instead, it was her husband, Doug, saying that he'd just received word that their 18-year-old daughter, Amanda, a freshman at Chico State University in California, was being held at a psychiatric crisis center after trying to throw herself in front of a moving car. Amanda had lost her grip on reality and fallen into a state of psychosis. She'd started selling off her belongings and believed that cameras were following her everywhere.

Doug was away at a speaking engagement, so Pam jumped in the car with a friend and raced to the crisis center two hours away. When they arrived, they found Amanda, curled up in a ball on the floor in a fetal position, sobbing. "I was hallucinating. I thought I was a doctor. When my mom got there, I realized I was the one in trouble," says Amanda. "Nothing prepares you for seeing your child in such turmoil. I felt helpless," says Pam.
    Amanda was soon diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterized by manic highs, depressive lows and possible periods of psychosis. Although the diagnosis provided a new direction to what had been an all-consuming journey for the Lipp family, it was just one stop on the bumpy road to navigating the mental health system. The Lipps are not alone: Nearly one in five Americans experiences a mental illness in any given year, but fewer than half of them receive treatment.

      Early signs

      Amanda first started acting out when she was in middle school in Fair Oaks, California. She had extreme mood swings and explosive arguments with her parents. Pam and Doug, who run a small business together, hoped it was typical adolescent drama that would soon fade. "We never knew which Amanda we were going to get," Pam recalls — the edgy Amanda looking for a heated debate, or the down, depressed Amanda who would retreat to her room. Eventually, the intensity and unpredictability of her moods made them realize she needed professional help.
      They took her to the family doctor, who agreed that Amanda required more help but said that she didn't have anyone to refer her to. Instead, the doctor recommended that Pam request a copy of all the therapists in her zip code who worked with her insurance company and call down the list. Pam called dozens of practitioners, leaving message after message. Not only was the list outdated, but most were too busy to even see her daughter and the ones who were highly recommended didn't accept her insurance anymore.
        Pam and Amanda Lipp pose near their home in California.
        For her part, Amanda was reluctant about seeing a therapist. She worried about what other people might think, and that it would change the image she had of herself. "I was the popular kid who people looked up to," says Amanda. "I thought that if my friends saw me as someone to be pitied, they wouldn't lean on me anymore. Part of me wanted to get help, yet the other part of me didn't want to admit I needed it."
        She agreed to give therapy a try and Pam found someone Amanda was comfortable with. Yet, at an out-of-pocket rate of $120 per hour, the Lipps just couldn't afford the amount of care she needed, which was about three sessions per week. She visited a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with depression and put on an antidepressant. Despite the treatment, Amanda continued to spiral downward — staying out late, self-medicating with drugs and arguing with her family.
        During those years, Pam says, she and Doug were living one exhausting day to the next. They had three children to raise, but taking care of Amanda consumed their lives. "We felt like we were in prison in our own home with all the hostility and upheaval."
        By the time Amanda headed to college, she was barely speaking to her parents.

        Fighting for care

        Amanda's bipolar diagnosis was a turning point — it meant that she could begin to receive the treatment she desperately needed. But it wasn't easy to find at first.
        The crisis center would only hold her for a maximum of 72 hours, and Amanda needed much more treatment than that. When Pam asked where her daughter would be sent next, the doctor told her Amanda would be discharged and likely end up back in the center.
        So Pam spent the next day in the crisis center waiting room, desperately calling one psychiatric hospital after another to find a place to send Amanda. They were all full. She begged them to call her back when they had an opening, but they told her they couldn't reserve a spot. Instead, they told her to call every half hour in the hope that she'd be able to grab the next available bed. Pam plugged her cellphone into the waiting room wall and repeatedly called each one on speed dial. "You go into mother-bear mode, where you dig in and do what you have to do to protect your cub. I knew I couldn't stop until Amanda had the help she needed," says Pam.
        After eight hours of continuous dialing, Pam finally found Amanda an open bed at a hospital near their home. For Pam, it was a huge relief that her daughter was safe. "We felt like we were finally entering a new phase of tackling her condition. In the hospital, at least we knew where she was