February 15, 2008 / 1:05 PM / in 10 years

Author Steel knows Spears family mental illness pain

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Author Danielle Steel, who experienced the pain of seeing her mentally ill son commit suicide, is urging the parents of pop star Britney Spears to keep fighting for mental health treatment for their daughter.

Steel knows the struggle of coping with a mentally ill child -- her son Nick Traina was diagnosed at 16 with bipolar disorder and, she said, spiraled into a depression that led him to commit suicide just over a decade ago at the age of 19.

Friends and family of Spears, 26, have said they believe the mother-of-two may also be suffering from bipolar disorder, characterized by abrupt mood swings, or other psychiatric problems.

“In the case of Britney Spears’ parents what you have to be is extremely loving, extremely resourceful and extremely persistent and every time you’re defeated, just go at the problem again,” Steel told Reuters in a rare interview.

Steel, who has seven biological children and two adopted stepchildren, said her son showed signs of mental illness from an early age, but it took years of consulting different doctors before he was diagnosed.

Speaking on the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Nick Traina Foundation, which funds groups who do “hands on” work with mentally ill young people, Steel said Spears problems “illustrate the drama and dilemma of the family of mentally ill people in this country -- it’s a very, very tough thing.”

“I feel so sorry for her,” said Steel, who has sold more than 560 million copies of her books worldwide. “If it is the case (that she has bipolar), she can get on track with the right treatment and medication.”

Spears was admitted to a Los Angeles hospital last month for a psychiatric evaluation. But she was allowed to leave after six days, causing her parents, Jamie and Lynn, to issue a statement saying that they were “extremely disappointed.”

They said their daughter was “in the throes of a mental health crisis” and believed “her life is presently at risk.”

Steel agrees. “When people aren’t medicated it can be lethal,” she said, adding that she hadn’t realized that when dealing with her own son. “I thought it could ruin his life. I really didn’t understand how high the possibility was that it could cost him his life.”

Steel -- who will release her 72nd novel “Honor Thyself” on February 26 -- believes the laws need to be changed to allow mentally ill people to be hospitalized against their will.

“Usually bipolars present extremely well and they can bounce into court ... look very together and be a complete mess three hours later on the streets somewhere,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do.”

Editing by Alan Elsner

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