By Alyssa Long
For Kay Redfield Jamison, publicly discussing her mood disorder is much like crossing the Bay Bridge in Maryland when there is a storm over the Chesapeake Bay. “One may be terrified to go forward, but there is no question of going back,” she said.
Jamison, a professor of psychology and co-president of the Mood Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, among many other titles. Drawing on extensive personal experience as well as professional psychiatry, Jamison addressed UC Santa Barbara students and community members last week about the commonly misunderstood topic of mood disorders.
She held a workshop with Writing Program students to discuss her motivations for writing, a day before a featured talk at Campbell Hall for the UCSB Arts and Lectures program.
Jamison suffered from bipolar disorder in her early adulthood, and has experienced great success with lithium treatment.
“If I wrote about it, as a researcher, it could make a difference in some people’s lives,” Jamison said about her decision to publish details about her mental health experiences. “The writing part was easy,” she added, a sentiment not often heard from authors.
Jamison feared she would compromise her career as a professor by being vulnerable about her mental illness. But the atmosphere at Johns Hopkins was supportive and encouraging, allowing her to continue her practice while writing her book.
While the process of writing wasn’t necessarily cathartic for her, it was something that needed to be done to help others. She explained that mental illness is extremely common, but people tend to remain quiet about their experiences. This perpetuates common misconceptions, including that intelligence and mental illness cannot coexist, and that a person with a mood disorder cannot recover.
“People would see me through a diagnostic framework,” she said. “All of a sudden, you’re a fragile flower that has to be tended. And I don’t think of myself as a fragile flower.”
She stressed how important the humanities have been to her, alongside her scientific expertise, especially the poetry of Robert Lowell, which had a profound impact on her life. Lowell was a prolific poet with bipolar disorder and manic depression who wrote brilliant poetry during his manic states. Her biography about Lowell examines his creative genius in combination with his manic depression.
“What mania does is it gives you boldness, decisiveness, and impatience,” Jamison said. Lowell would revise his work during periods of depression, which took a great deal of discipline. “I think discipline is under-appreciated and under-written about,” Jamison said.
Humanities, she said, are vital because they help people to understand one another, and when people are quiet about their struggles, those struggles may seem abnormal and frightening to the rest of society. “One of the great things that can be done is to write,” she said, visually scanning the small room full of young writers.
Despite the prevalence of depression and bipolar disorder, Jamison is optimistic about the future of mental health research. “It’s a much more hopeful subject than it used to be,” she said, because research about the brain, the genetics of suicide, and medicine are advancing rapidly.
Johns Hopkins provides a support system for medical students with mental illnesses, and students are advised to look out for one another. Jamison advised students at UCSB to do the same, and to be aware of the resources available on campus.
The following evening in Campbell Hall, Jamison discussed what is currently known about depression and mania. Depression is characterized by apathy and hopelessness, she said, while mania is the opposite—frenzied engagement with the world and bountiful ideas.
Her lecture took a personal turn as she detailed her experiences as a young academic with manic depression, as bipolar disorder was known then. She read excerpts from An Unquiet Mind, which describes both her manic and depressive episodes in vivid detail. Jamison said she initially rejected medicine and denied the validity of her illness, which she explained was “biological in its origins, yet feels psychological in its nature.”
Jamison recounted a key moment when she was an assistant professor at UCLA. She told one of her mentors about her mental illness, and he urged her to integrate her personal and professional life.
“Learn from it, teach from it, write from it,” he advised.
Alyssa Long is a second-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Communication. She is a Web and Social Media Intern with UC Santa Barbara’s Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.