Kay Redfield Jamison: Risk and Reward

Prominent scientist Kay Redfield Jamison gambled her career when she made the weighty decision to disclose her diagnosis. And look where it got her!

By Maureen Salamon

bpWin15-KayJamison-articleWith a pert blonde bob, black turtleneck and flowing floral skirt, Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD, is the epitome of polished elegance as she takes the stage at the 26th annual New York Mental Health Research Symposium. She’s a living rebuke to misinformed stereotypes about the “mentally ill.”

Jamison has been upending expectations ever since her memoir An Unquiet Mind came out in 1995. Up till then, only a few creative types—theater director Josh Logan, actress Patty Duke—had gone public about having what was then called manic depression. Now this accomplished woman with academic credentials, a professor of psychiatry at the prestigious John Hopkins University School of Medicine, was disclosing her diagnosis.

Her clinical patients grappled with the contrast of that carefully groomed exterior and a messier inner reality. “But you look so normal,” a patient told her, “so . . . Brooks Brother-ish.”

Many of her professional peers grappled with a similar conundrum. Jamison had already established her reputation as an expert in manic-depressive illness, which is the term she still prefers. She co-authored what would become a definitive medical textbook (simply titled Manic-Depressive Illness) with Frederick K. Goodwin, MD, a prominent researcher and one of the few colleagues who knew about her condition.

That book was published in 1990, to be followed three years later by Touched with Fire, her reader-friendly exploration of the link between creativity and manic depression. It advanced a provocative thesis that the illness delivers advantages as well as deficits. (Her forthcoming book on the poet Robert Lowell, due out later this year, returns to this theme.)

An Unquiet Mind would change everything for Jamison. The decision to move from the academic to the personal, to unveil her illness to the wider world, was something she weighed long and carefully.

“I knew it would make me give up my (clinical psychology) practice and that the professional and financial consequences of doing this would be substantial,” Jamison told an appreciative audience a few months ago at the Mental Health Research Symposium, presented by the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation.

“I had treated patients for a very long time, and I knew the decision to stop seeing patients would be a loss . . . I loved clinical practice and was very reluctant to give it up.”

Jamison recalled her fraught path toward public disclosure in her keynote speech. Although it’s become almost unsurprising nowadays for musicians, actors and even athletes to admit to bipolar, it’s still a risky proposition outside that rarefied sphere of celebrity. For someone in Jamison’s position 20 years, it took almost unimaginable resolve.

“Kay Redfield Jamison was a legend way, way, way before her time,” said symposium moderator Robert Hirschfeld, MD, a leading expert in bipolar disorder.

“Although now it’s almost passé for someone to talk about an illness they experience, Kay was probably the first person of prominence to share she had bipolar disorder with the world and how devastating it can be.”


Looking back over four decades, the 68-year-old described how she first got a label for the mood symptoms and extravagant behaviors that began in late adolescence.

Jamison had started her career at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) when a colleague she was dating diagnosed her as manic depressive in 1974. She was in the midst of a major manic episode that included almost no sleep and extravagant spending on books, pricey jewelry and provocative clothing. She even bought a dozen snakebite kits because she felt she had information from God that foretold an imminent rattlesnake infestation. [end of excerpt]