Kay Redfield Jamison is a world authority on mood disorders, a clinical psychologist, one of the most respected academics in mental health and called a “hero of medicine” by TIME magazine. But while Kay Redfield Jamison has hundreds of accolades, she has also battled bipolar all her life. Her intellect, career and experience with the condition gives her penetrating insight into bipolar, mental health and suicide and what needs to be done to improve awareness and treatment of these conditions.
She grew up in a warm large family, in a military environment. When she was in senior high school her first attack of manic depression hit. Staying up late making great and fantastic plans, immersing in activities, enchanted with the laws of the natural world, she tired her friends out with incessant activity and ideas. Kay Redfield Jamison’s manic phases tended to be the euphoric type with psychotic features. When she got into university Kay Redfield Jamison started to get really sick with severe mania and depression.
The management of her condition continued to deteriorate alongside her gaining serious academic posts. Trying to manage her burgeoning career and keeping her condition under control was beginning to take its toll. She was prescribed medicine but didn’t take it regularly.
When she was 28 she attempted suicide. She had stopped taking medication and was profoundly depressed. Kay Redfield Jamison was able to rebound when she was younger but in her late twenties her illness declined for about 18 months and it become intolerable. The problems culminated in taking an overdose of medication. Fortunately her brother called from Paris to check in on her.
Since her near death Kay Redfield Jamison has remained compliant with medication, although this didn’t come easily as she resisted taking medication for so long. She often created long webs of twisted reasoning to go off lithium. She was petrified about going on lithium and not working as it should. But it does for her, and she has responded well to lithium.
The experience also intensified her interest in looking at the powerful nexus between mental health and suicide. As a result of coming so close to suicide, Jamison has a vested interest in the study of suicide and how mental health plays such a crucial part in causing people to suicide.
“There is a huge relationship between suicide and being under the age of 30, but that’s exactly the age group that is least likely to be compliant in taking medication,” Jamison points out *
She then realised that getting and staying on mood stabilising medications, such as lithium, was profoundly essential to her own wellbeing and the management of her condition. This is not uncommon at all, when documenting howibeat stories we continuously see how important mood stabilising medications are to the management of bipolar. Linda Hamilton, Jean Claude van Damme and Carrie Fisher are more famous people who made this discovery when they made efforts to better manage their condition. She believes bipolar is genetic, and notes bipolar going strongly up a family line.
Kay Redfield Jamison is also committed to the continuing destigmatisation of mental illness. She makes an excellent point about destigmatisation being inextricably linked to treatment and research. The better the treatment and research, the less stigmatisation:
“Ultimately, destigmatisation comes about through treatment and research,” she states. “If you look at the destigmatisation of epilepsy and cancer, it was tied to treatment. AIDS became much less stigmatized when it was no longer believed it was always related to death. Cancer began to be treatable … epilepsy the same way when treatments began to be available. Now we have treatments for depression and, increasingly, they exist for bipolar.” *
Kay Redfield Jamison’s analyses her own mental health to give a unique perspective on the inner workings of a condition. She doesn’t think it makes you a better doctor or practitioner, after all a good doctor is a good doctor. She is exceptional at grounding scientific research with empathy and is a powerful bridge between the mental health community and scientific research.
She’s also incredibly candid and philosophical when speaking of her own experiences:
I long ago abandoned the notion of a life without storms, or a world without dry and killing seasons. Life is too complicated, too constantly changing, to be anything but what it is. And I am, by nature, too mercurial to be anything but deeply wary of the grave unnaturalness involved in any attempt to exert too much control over essentially uncontrollable forces. There will always be propelling, disturbing elements, and they will be there until, as Lowell put it, the watch is taken from the wrist. It is, at the end of the day, the individual moments of restlessness, of bleakness, of strong persuasions and maddened enthusiasms, that inform one’s life, change the nature and direction of one’s work, and give final meaning and color to one’s loves and friendships. *
Kay Redfield Jamison really is a credit to the mental health field and to millions of people who truly admire her as person and the causes she champions. All people who are interested in destigmatising mental health are in her debt. She has a deeper compassion as a result of her condition. We finish on this great quote from an Unquiet Mind:
I have often asked myself whether, given the choice, I would choose to have manic-depressive illness. If lithium were not available to me, or didn’t work for me, the answer would be a simple no and it would be an answer laced with terror. But lithium does work for me, and therefore I can afford to pose the question. Strangely enough I think I would choose to have it. It’s complicated. Depression is awful beyond words or sounds or images… So why would I want anything to do with this illness? Because I honestly believe that as a result of it I have felt more things, more deeply; had more experiences, more intensely; loved more, and been more loved; laughed more often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs, for all the winters… and slowly learned the values of caring, loyalty and seeing things through. …Depressed, I have crawled on my hands and knees in order to get across a room and have done it for month after month. But, normal or manic, I have run faster, thought faster and loved faster than most I know. Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind
How Kay Redfield Jamison Beat Bipolar
Lithium and mood stablising medications evened out her mood and made her condition manageable thus freeing her continue to excel professionally.
Kay is passionate about spreading information about mental illness and breaking down misconceptions about mental illness. Her efforts at highlighting the lethality of conditions like major depression and bipolar puts the seriousness of the condition in the spotlight.
For a long time Kay was in therapy going alongside her medication. The combination of medication and talk therapy is one of the most effective treatment combinations against depression and bipolar. A problem with psychotherapy is that often many insurance companies do not cover it, so it is not often an option available to all.
All these videos are well worth watching in detail, Kay Redfield Jamison is a rare combination of the heart and intellect shining together without compromising either:
References and further reading
Excellent interview with Charlie Rose, simply a must watch!
Kay Redfield Jamison’s books are treasure troves of useful information on bipolar and mental health in general:
Manic-Depressive Illness (1990) and second edition (2007) with Frederick K Goodwin
Touched with Fire (1993)
An Unquiet Mind (1995)
Night falls fast: Understanding Suicide (1999)
Exuberance: Passion for Life (2004)
Nothing was the Same: A Memoir (2009)