|Image from John Hopkins University|
Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison is as much a hero for her work and accomplishments, as she is for the tribulations she has endured while achieving them.
Well-known among professionals in the mental health field for decades and considered one of the foremost authorities on manic depressive illness, it was less than 10 years ago that the public, as did most all of her colleagues, learned that she, herself, suffers from mental illness. Plagued with manic highs and lows since childhood, Jamison is one of the many sufferers of bipolar disorder, and her personal experiences have as much hindered as they have propelled her professional development.
It was her disorder, in part, that helped her choose her career. But it was also her disorder, considered severe and with psychotic features, which brought her so low at times that she attempted taking her own life.
While Jamison’s work had been on the shelves and in the study curricula of doctors worldwide, it was not publicly known that she was as much a doctor of psychology, as a patient. A sufferer, herself, she co-authored the standard medical text on manic depressive illness, titled just that, Manic-Depressive Illness, which the American Association of Publishers selected in 1990 as the “Most Outstanding Book in Biomedical Sciences.” She even penned a book on suicide, titled, Night Falls Fast.
In 1995 she disclosed her condition publicly with a memoir of her own experiences with manic depression titled An Unquiet Mind . It was chosen as one of the best books of 1995 and remained on The New York Times Bestseller List for over five months. Of great global appeal as well, it was also translated into fifteen languages. The book’s popularity is due, in part, to its honest and straightforward composition, since she describes in great detail what it has been like to live with the illness, with the bouts of mania and depression, and at times, psychosis.
What makes Jamison’s story so unique and heroic is not only her perseverance and her ability to overcome her tribulations, but her desire and capacity for reaching out to others in the process.
In many ways, she has helped provide for others what she, herself, did not have available to her. During her childhood, mental illness was viewed quite differently and the resources, as the medications available, were nowhere near what they are now. Then, the Americans with Disabilities Act did not yet exist, nor did the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, nor the Internet and its slew of resources, nor any books on the subject of bipolar disorder, for that matter. Her work and that of her colleagues helped change things so much so, that a present-day sufferer would not even imagine the dramatic differences from only thirty years ago.
Jamison attended UCLA as an undergraduate and graduate student in psychology and became faculty in 1974, later founding the UCLA Affective Disorders Clinic. She is now a distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an honorary professor of English at the University of St. Andrew in Scotland.
She has been named one of the "Best Doctors in the United States" and was chosen by Time magazine as a "Hero of Medicine." She was also chosen as one of the five individuals for the public television series "Great Minds of Medicine." In 2001, she was selected as a MacArthur Fellow, commonly known as the "genius grant."
While her accomplishments are astounding by anyone’s standards, to those suffering from mental illness, and particularly those suffering from bipolar disorder, Jamison is a living example of what can be achieved despite the disorder.
Better yet, Jamison feels that the condition can be viewed differently, not necessarily as solely a burden. In her book,Touched with Fire, she explores the relationship between bipolar disorder and creativity. In her lectures as well, she speaks of historical figures, artists, and heroes who by present-day standards would easily be considered bipolar or a number of other mental illnesses. She urges others to find comfort in the writing of others, particularly those who have portrayed their own experiences with mental illness such as Percy Shelley, Anne Sexton, and William James.
Even as a psychologist, herself, she often speaks of her reluctance to take her medications regularly, and other common reactions, both good and bad, to live with the disorder. It is this very humanness, her frankness and self-disclosure, as well as all the research and work she has done within her field, that have made her so well-loved within the bipolar community, and so respected and admired around the world.