There she sat, smiling up at me, her sweet spirit intact, her proud mom by her side.
Ashley Nommensen has fought hard against bipolar disorder for four years, but when I bumped into her last week amid the hustle of the holiday season, she looked positively joyful.
I hadn’t seen Ashley since last December, when she was the topic of a column I wrote about her struggle; about the grief the disorder caused her family and about the shortage of mental health resources for children and teens in Kern County. If Ashley’s name doesn’t ring a bell, it may be because her mom asked last year that I not identify her daughter to protect her from the stigma of mental illness.
Stigma? Who cares about some stinking stigma?
Not Ashley. Not any more.
The pretty Stockdale High School senior doesn’t have time to worry about other’s misinformed opinions on mental disorders — she’s too busy making straight As and changing her world. And she’s busy helping other teens change theirs.
Her condition now controlled with medication and determination, Ashley is a founding member of Outspoken Young Minds, a peer support group for teens and young adults struggling with mental health issues and a project of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Kern County.
In the year since the program began, Ashley has become an energetic advocate for OSYM, speaking to civic groups and high school counselors, even appearing on a public television special on high-risk teens in South Carolina, where her older sister attends college.
“She captivates an audience when she tells her story,” says Russ Sempell a local therapist and president of the Kern NAMI chapter. “They’re absolutely glued to her when she tells her story about when she first got sick.”
Ashley was only 13 when a series of traumatic events, including a cruel hoax perpetuated by a classmate and the departure for college of her much-loved older sister, collided to catapult the bashful girl into a full-blown psychotic episode. Five months later, doctors at the child psychiatry department at UCLA diagnosed early onset bipolar disorder.
Ashley says her ultimate goal is to make a difference in the lives of other teens who are “suffering and ashamed because of their brain disorders.”
“I’m still trying to get the confidence to be wholly me, but I’ve never been ashamed to talk about it,” says Ashley.
Good thing, too, because she’ll talking about little else when she, mom Mickie Nommensen and Sempell present their new program at the national meeting of NAMI in San Francisco in June.
OSYM is the first and much-needed youth program of its kind in the country, says Sempell.
“There are more than 37,000 kids in the Kern High School District and we figure up to 8 percent have some kind of mental health condition,” he says. “Up to now, there’s been no outreach for these kids, who feel damaged and often don’t talk to anyone about it.”
There are only 12 young people in OSYM at this time, but there is room for more, says Sempell, who screens referred clients before inviting them to attend.
As for Ashley, she plans to enroll at CSUB next year and major in — what else? — psychology. In the meantime, she promises to keep spreading the word that mental disorders are no cause for shame and that “normal is just a cycle on the washing machine.”
“There are too many kids who have issues that still need help,” she says. “For us, OSYM is awesome.”
These are Marylee Shrider’s opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Her column appears Saturday. Call her at 395-7474 or write firstname.lastname@example.org.