Suicidal at 4: Young and mentally ill

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 2/11/2014, 12:27 p.m.
His mother is direct and matter-of-fact about her son over the phone. Severe anxiety. Depression. Voices and visions in his ...
Gianni Cristini says he hears voices from his stuffed animals, other things. His family has struggled to get answers and a diagnosis. His parents are worried about their safety as he gets older and stronger. "We need help," Gianni's mother says.

By Kyung Lah

CNN

His mother is direct and matter-of-fact about her son over the phone.

Severe anxiety. Depression. Voices and visions in his head. Suicidal at age 4.

I, too, have a 4-year-old child. I wonder, is that even possible?

Jennifer Cristini is calm and methodical in our first phone conversation. She says it's from years of repeating these same symptoms and stories to doctors, teachers, neighbors and friends.

I imagine their reaction must be similar to mine: dismay, sadness and helplessness.

"But there's no sympathy," says Cristini.

It's hard to imagine how anyone cannot be sympathetic when they first meet 10-year-old Giovanni Cristini, or Gianni, as his family has called him since he was adopted at birth.

He looks younger than 10, with cherubic cheeks and freckles dotting his nose. His adult teeth are too large for his face, which breaks widely into a smile when you talk about his favorite Pokemon, Pikachu. His hair is curly and a little unruly from recess with his friends.

Do you know what you have? "I have bipolar," Gianni says to me, looking down and rocking. He has a little nervous energy and hard time focusing. But like many children his age, he just wants to please.

Do you hear voices? "Yeah, from my stuffed animals and other things. It scared the crap out of me."

I can feel his mom, who is standing several feet away from us, flinch. She doesn't like coarse language from her children.

Your stuffed animals? What do you mean, you hear things from your stuffed animals? "Yeah. Voices came in my head. So I told my mom. I couldn't even listen to my music."

Are they friendly? Are they nice? "No!"

Gianni says the word loudly, his tone serious and adult. He wants me to understand: "They're just not friendly," he stresses, emphasizing every word.

I know he's telling me the truth, but it's still hard to believe -- maybe because he's so young and innocent-looking. It's hard to imagine terrifying demons in a child this small.

'The fire in his brain'

Then Cristini hands me a thumb drive with some home video. She couldn't possibly capture every episode. These are just a few from the last few years.

Gianni is younger in the video, maybe 7 years old. He looks even smaller but the sound coming out of him is the bloodcurdling screams of horror movies. It is sheer terror coming out of a pint-sized human.

"They're not going!" Gianni screams on the video, his arm extended at the ghosts in front of him.

Gianni's father lays his body over his son. The weight and pressure calm him, he explains to me.

You can hear his mother's voice, even and calm on the video as she coaxes Gianni to practice his breathing.

"I'm just trying to get the fire in his brain out," she says.

Cristini is as calm with me as her voice is on the video. She is statuesque, with the sort of remarkable beauty that opens doors and others assume reflects a life of ease. It hides the amount of practice she's had dealing with her child's psychotic rages.