Speaker describes bipolar disorder
Johns Hopkins Medical School Professor of Psychiatry Kay Redfield Jamison visited the College on Thursday, April 12, to discuss her firsthand experience with bipolar disorder. Lindsey Hylek ’12 introduced Jamison, calling her “one of my personal role models” and “a truly compelling speaker.”
Jamison, who earned her PhD in psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles in 1975, has been chosen by Time Magazine as a “Hero of Medicine.” In addition, Jamison is well-known for her books, especially An Unquiet Mind, which chronicles her life-long struggle with bipolar disorder.
She began her lecture with some background information. “For most people, the average age of onset [of bipolar and other manic disorders] is about 18 or 19,” Jamison said.
Jamison described bipolar disorder as widely varied, ranging from mild to severe and even deadly. Bipolar disorder is “a disorder characterized by profound changes in mood and mind,” Jamison said. She said that while there is a lot of access to information about these disorders, which makes treatment much easier, she remains concerned about the inequality in treatment between poor and wealthy patients.
She then provided a haunting statistic: 50 percent of people with bipolar illness attempt suicide at least once because of severe depression brought on by the illness. In terms of treatment, “Lithium remains the gold standard,” Jamison said. However, despite the effectiveness of Lithium in counteracting depression, many bipolar patients refuse to take the medicine because of its unpleasant effects, including eliminating the euphoric feeling sometimes felt by bipolar patients.
Jamison proceeded to tell her own story. “I had a psychotic breakdown when I was in high school,” she said. In college, Jamison “became, both by necessity and by intellectual inclination, a student of moods.” Even as a professor at UCLA, Jamison was thrilled by “fast-flowing, high-flying times” and “boundless restless energy” caused by the disorder. It took her years to understand that the negative impacts of bipolar disorder far outweigh the benefits brought on by any euphoria. “When you’re high, it’s tremendous,” Jamison said. However, she added, “Somewhere this changes…[and] overwhelming confusion replaces clarity.” Jamison, like many Lithium patients, “found it very difficult for me to believe that the illness was one I should give up.”
She remained in that frame of mind for a long time, until she could no longer take the depression. “I could not bear the person I had become,” she said. Jamison, who was an expert on the use of Lithium to treat bipolar, took an overdose of her medication. “I took what I knew to be a more-than-lethal dose of Lithium,” she said.
As a result, Jamison was in and out of a coma for days and almost died. With the support of her Johns Hopkins colleagues and other friends, Jamison made it through the coma alive. “I speak this evening because of their compassion,” Jamison said.
In the years since, Jamison has always taken her medication and has had no major episodes of bipolar disorder. Thanks to the help of her family and supporters, Jamison continues to raise bipolar disorder awareness on college campuses.