There aren’t too many books written by children who witnessed their parents’ mental illness and chose to write about it while they were still kids.
Owen Marshall, now an eighth grader living in Virginia near Washington, D.C., is your typical teen playing video games and participating in sports like swim team and basketball. However, a few years ago, he and his younger sister Vivian, witnessed something traumatic.
“I was in shock,” he said.
His mother, Jennifer Marshall, founder and creator of This is My Brave, a storytelling organization which helps people share their stories and talk about mental illness, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 in 2006 a few short years before Owen was born.
After the sudden death of her co-founder of This is My Brave of a heart attack a few years ago, Jennifer began experiencing mania and psychosis, and ultimately had to be hospitalized. Her children, then tweens, witnessed the beginning of her episode. It confused and frightened them.
So, when Jennifer was stable again, she had both her kids talk to a therapist about what they saw in order to process it. The therapist, who wrote the forward in Owen’s book, wanted them to write about what they experienced. They both wrote books about it.
So, after much editing, Owen wrote a version for his seventh grade English project.
“I learned about how I thought as a person, and especially how I deal with trauma,” he said. “I wanted to run from trauma, but I learned the way to deal with it is to confront it.”
He received an A for his assignment and his teacher said it was the only nonfiction/memoir turned in to her. However, he wanted to take his project much further to combat the stigma of mental illness and help other children to deal with similar experiences. So, he worked with an illustrator to publish his work to Amazon.
His mother, Jennifer, was extremely supportive throughout the process, helping him decide which details to include that would be helpful to others.
“It can tell other kids that there are ways to recover if they go through something like this, that there is always hope,” he said.
Owen had difficulty writing about his mom’s actual episode, but he persisted through the pain and blocks to write eloquently.
“I realized that it wasn’t her, that she was acting differently because of the mania,” he said. “Writing my book helped me process it a lot more, now it’s become a part of me rather than something I’m afraid of.”
He hopes to reach other children who are processing and dealing with similar issues with their parents or caregivers.
Although, Owen has no plans in the immediate future to write another book, his mom told me that he has written drafts of sci fi/fantasy books.
Writing is a cathartic way of dealing with the trauma of mental illness in yourself and others. For someone so young, to be able to write fluently and eloquently about it, is a testament to the next generation being open about talking about mental illness and erasing the stigma. As his mom Jennifer always says in her talks, “Someday, we’ll just call it talking.”