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Daniel is 14 now, and his mother no longer needs to convince doctors that he is mentally ill. With broad shoulders and a thick frame, Stephanie looks the part of a worthy combatant and strong advocate. Imagine what it’s like for a mother to watch her son suffer – the little boy who sang and danced to Michael Jackson tunes, who tossed the baseball out back, who she dreamed would become a doctor. Stephanie’s fight is literally one of life and death – a desperate attempt to win back her son from the mental illness trying to consume him.
The only time mental illness dominates the national conversation is when something goes tragically wrong.
That refrain emerged stronger than ever last December after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
I covered the tragedy in Newtown the week after the massacre and returned there a few times in the months that followed. I later learned the scope of the problem: More than 60 million adults and about 15 million children in America suffer some form of mental disorder.
The mass shootings that shine a spotlight on mental illness actually stigmatize those who suffer with it.
What if the issue could be seen through the prism of an average American family – not just through the lens of a national tragedy? I asked the largest nonprofit mental health advocacy group, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to spread the word of my interest in telling that story. Even for families who have resources and do everything right, it can take years to find the proper care, he says. Duckworth cautions against drawing conclusions about the paths of children or teens with mental illness.
Stephanie and Jose asked that CNN refer to their oldest son as Daniel; that is not his real name, and his last name is different from theirs. Seventeen cadets being trained to work in the Bexar County jail system sit in the audience and shake their heads. Stephanie moved from the rural town of Uvalde, Texas, to San Antonio to gain better access to mental health treatment.
Those experiences gave her another view of the mentally ill – from medical and law enforcement perspectives.
Two years ago, she did her first session for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, which puts its personnel through mandatory crisis intervention training aimed at teaching the best ways to deal with the mentally ill.
She implores the cadets to show compassion when they arrive at a scene involving a disruptive child. Once, Daniel was beaten by an acquaintance while a friend shot video that was later posted on YouTube.
On a fishing trip one weekend in March 2009, Stephanie watched as Daniel pushed their lunch supplies, one by one, off the top of a picnic table. He kept the real reason to himself: Voices urged him to shove his 3-year-old brother into the lake so he would drown.
Stephanie went to Barnes & Noble and bought nearly every book they had on bipolar disorder. The year 2010 was marked by four, and in 2011 there were five, including a 90-day court-ordered commitment. Not only has Jose not turned and run, but he embraces the messy life of raising a teenager, one who happens to be mentally ill. More than 100 relatives mingle in and around Stephanie’s house to celebrate the 63rd birthday of her mother, Rosa.

The family lives in a modest four-bedroom ranch in a working-class neighborhood in suburban San Antonio. On this night, after guests leave, Stephanie’s sisters talk about their guilt for abandoning her and their ignorance of mental illness.
Mari De La Cerda had an awakening after Daniel twice went into psychosis while she was babysitting.
Above Daniel’s bed hang a crucifix, a drawing of him swinging a baseball bat and a postcard from New York City.
Five medications attempt to regulate his mood swings, control his anxiety, tamp down the episodes of psychosis. Daniel’s psychiatrist, Corey Hough, works with him to pinpoint what exactly causes his anxiety and triggers his episodes. The start of the school year might bring anxiety to any kid, Hough says, but for Daniel it means he worries about it constantly. What pushes a person across that edge, to act on the voices’ commands, remains the great unknown in psychiatry. Stephanie is resting in bed ahead of her overnight shift on a Friday night in August when Daniel walks in.
She gathers her stuff and calls the Laurel Ridge Treatment Center, the closest hospital to the family’s home. Four days later, Stephanie returns to the hospital for a family session with Daniel and his counselor.
Stephanie tells the counselor that she and Jose have spoken with the children about the need to go easy on Daniel – that normal sibling spats can easily get overblown. See where to turn for help with mental illness in children, and find more mental health resources at Impact Your World.
Moments later, Jose cuts the SUV down a side street, hooks a left and pulls up to the house. They have about 20 minutes to calm him, or the episode will last a couple of hours, perhaps even days. Stephanie Escamilla agreed to let CNN into her home to document what it is like to raise a child with a serious mental illness. The dialogue and direct quotes in the story were heard by Drash or drawn from documents, videos or audio recordings. The 75 million American families touched by mental illness, like Stephanie Escamilla’s, largely deal with it in private. A shuttered mental hospital overlooks the idyllic New England town; just down the hill sits a high-security prison housing the criminally insane. The vast majority, advocates point out, are far more likely to be the victims of violence – they often get beat up or bullied — than to commit a violent act. By telling their story, they hope to help others raising a mentally ill child and shed light on mental illness for those who remain clueless. Stephanie stands at the podium and shows a photograph of Daniel looking dapper with deep brown eyes, trimmed brown hair and a broad smile.
She promised her son one thing: I will always take care of you, no matter how hard it gets. She tells the cadets the slide isn’t up to date – the hospitalizations now number about 20. Daniel pushed stuff off the table instead; it was his way of deflecting the voices, of keeping his brother safe. He stabbed himself in the head with a pencil because he was having more thoughts about hurting his brother.

Three massive smokers house a Texas-sized feast: 80 pounds of brisket, platters of sausage links, nine dozen ears of corn, and heaps of barbecued cabbage. He averts his anxiety by running around the neighborhood, pacing in the backyard and cutting his arm, which brings relief.
A family must take measures around the home, and the psychiatrist must recognize when hospitalization is needed. If Hough can help him better identify the triggers and minimize his medication, there will be success. Not too many children, especially those with mental illness, have that type of relationship with a parent. First they talk with Daniel at the table before calling the other three children into the room. They’re almost home, she says, and he can take his medicine as soon as he walks through the door. Her 14-year-old son, whose real name is not used in the story and whose face is obscured in the video and photographs, also agreed to participate. Italics are used in the instances where the dialogue was recalled by a participant and not witnessed by the reporter.
A family would open itself to scrutiny and, possibly, judgment – on top of everything else it faces. Stephanie, 37, and her fiance, Jose Farias, 33, are raising three other children, ranging in age from 7 to 10, in their merged household. Many in his hometown know Daniel has a mental illness, but the family didn’t want that label to extend to the Internet, where it could dog him when he seeks a job or applies to college. Drug combinations that were meant to control his state of mind seemed only to make his condition worse. Martial arts is one of his favorite activities – it helps channel his thoughts in a positive fashion.
He punches walls and kicks the fence out back so as not to carry out the voices’ commands.
She speaks of her stress – caring for her dying mother, trying to help her son, making ends meet.
In June 2013, reporter Wayne Drash made the first of many visits to their home in San Antonio, Texas.
Conscious Consultations strives to empower its clients through the power of voice and executional vision.
A board member of the San Antonio chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, she welcomed CNN into her home beginning in June. She told herself the walls were paper thin, that he was hearing conversations throughout the home. She taught a class for medical assistants at a local trade school and continued working full-time.
And every year since, that anniversary has triggered an episode resulting in hospitalization. Stephanie sent her youngest son to live with his father for a year while she got Daniel treatment.
In the months that followed, I witnessed her resolve to change the path of a 14-year-old boy oscillating between the trials of adolescence and the anguish of mental illness.

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