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Battling demons: Central Coast journalist authors book looking at her childhood mental health issues

Journalist Katya Cengel's new book looks at her battle with mental health issues as a child, and how children with mental health issues are treated.
Russ Powell
Journalist Katya Cengel's new book looks at her battle with mental health issues as a child, and how children with mental health issues are treated.

Katya Cengel was just 10 when she almost died from an eating disorder, which she says was an ignored cry for help.

She was patient number 090-71-51 at Stanford’s Children’s Hospital.

"When I was 10 years old, I was put in the psychiatric unit at Stanford Children's Hospital, and I was there more than 100 days," said Katya Cengel.

She's a Central Coast journalist who’s traveled around the world to report for publications like the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. But, her latest book is a look back more than three decades at her traumatic childhood.

"I was ten years old, and I stopped eating. Some say anorexia, but for me, it was the easiest way to kill myself in a slow method that would get people's attention. I remember thinking about knives, and thinking that would be too immediate. I didn't fully want to die, but I was in a bad home situation, and I needed an escape," said Cengel.

The book about childhood mental illness is called Straightjackets and Lunch Money. Cengel said she was overwhelmed by a bad home life. Even at the young age of ten, she thought taking her life might be her answer.

"It was more a plea for help, but after a while, there was a period where I just wanted to give up," said Cengel.

Cengel admits she resisted therapy. "I didn't want to talk to them. I didn't know how to express things. I thought it was obvious, and they should figure it out," she said.

The author, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo journalism lecturer said they tried all kinds of approaches to help her. She said at the time, nothing worked.

"Force fed, tube fed, because I refused to eat. They tried some antipsychotic medication to try to calm me, but it gave me a tremor. They tried therapy, and family therapy, but then I refused to see my dad, and then my mom as well. I was put in a straightjacket once...that's where the title (of the book) comes from," she said.

Cengel says the family’s insurance ran out, and she eventually returned home. The author says things improved slightly, and she finally opened up to help. So, why did she want to relive all this and write the book now?

"I feel there some people that we...I don't want to say write off...but look away still. I guess I really wanted people to be forced to see certain things, and to acknowledge these kind of kids. And, I wanted to look at how we treat young people who are not the kids who are easy to get along with, they're not the ones who are cute, and doing well. They're the other ones that we don't know what to do with," said Cengel.

The Cal Poly journalism lecturer will speak about the book Straightjackets and Lunch Money this week in Santa Barbara. The event will take place at 6 p.m. Thursday, at Chaucer’s Bookstore.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.