A stunning portrait of a helpless family that was posted last night on CNN has gnawed at me all day long. The depiction of a child diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenic affective disorder ran under the hard-to-ignore headline: Suicidal at Age 4.
It’s a family tragedy of the first order, so it’s admirable to say the least that this family has plucked up the courage to tell it like it is. So few do, it’s a rare thing indeed, yet it is what’s needed most of all.
Voices and visions are what Jennifer Cristini and her husband Vittorio are up against with their 10 year-old boy Giovanni, who they call Gianni. She says she’s weary from re-telling their adopted son’s story to other relatives, doctors, teachers, neighbors and friends.
“There’s no sympathy,” she says.
The CNN reporter asks incredulously how that can be.
Cristini has no answer–there is none, and we all know it. It’s shrugs from shrinks who can’t find a cause or a cure, and even our dearest friends don’t know how to discuss psychosis.
Adopted at birth, Gianni is not unaware of his condition. He says he hears voices, which has never been an unusual human experience, but his are of the worst sort. “They are not going,” the poor boy shrieks.
“Are they friendly? Are they nice? No!” he says of voices that come right out of his stuffed animals. “They’re just not friendly,” he says again, stressing each word.
A video of him three years ago shows a 7-year-old boy having hallucinatory fits. While Gianni is nonplussed, his mother Jennifer handles her boy with perfect aplomb.
Her worries about him started to grow at 18 months when she spotted unusual behavior, chiefly tantrums that would not end, not even for sleep, his head noisy with voices.
“He’s threatened to kill us,” says Ms Cristini. “He says ‘I want you dead, I want to kill you. I want you out of my life.’ And he comes after us.”
Alarmed by what he says, his parents don’t trust him to be safe.
The Cristinis worry about him harming their other two children, 5-year-old Tizita and 7-year-old Gabriella, too.
“I lift weights to stay strong,” Mr. Cristini says. “But what will happen when we are old?”
“He isn’t getting better,” says Ms. Cristini. “We see his mental illness getting worse every year. You hope for everything but you have to be realistic.”
The Cristinis invited CNN cameras into their home to share their experience for other families that are suffering in silence.
At first, family doctors had no notion of what was ailing him. Gianni’s symptoms—voices that seem like persistent phantoms—didn’t fit the profile for autism. But the waiting list to see a specialist was a full year.
“Just for testing, and you don’t get a diagnosis,” Ms Cristini says. “You ask friends or neighbors and nobody has a clue. They stop talking to you. They’re tired of hearing your son screaming all the time. There’s nothing you can do except fight and wait and call.”
On antidepressants since age 5, Gianni continually threatens suicide and homicide. The medication works for no more than a week.
“You feel like no one knows how to help you or really what to do or really what they’re doing,” Ms Cristini says. “It’s this incredible puzzle that you’re trying to figure what piece goes where and what combination will work. And that puzzle is always changing as he grows.”
Sound familiar? Yes, but it’s still rare and heartbreaking to see in a child knowing that Gianni is one among some 4 million American children struggling with mental illness.
Gianni attends a private institution in Albuquerque started by another parent fed up with the paucity of public school resources for special-needs kids.
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Last reviewed: 12 Feb 2014