Kay Redfield Jamison, prominent mental health activist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, spoke Wednesday night to a packed Sudler Hall about her decadeslong personal battle with bipolar disorder, the difficulties associated with mental illness, its relationship to gun violence in the United States and its romanticization as an enhancer of creativity.
The event was hosted by Mind Matters — an undergraduate group that raises awareness about mental health issues on campus — with the support of the Wellness Project, which awards funding to student groups focused on mental health. The audience of more than 200 included University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews, whose office has been involved in sponsoring the Wellness Grants.
Jamison, whom Time Magazine has described as a “hero of medicine,” said that because disorders such as mania, schizophrenia and depression are common among college students, these conditions have overwhelmed campus health services at universities nationwide.
“Many students now are treated for this problem, not always adequately,” she said. “It varies a lot from college to college but there’s just been a huge demand on student health services, even in the best of places.”
Although Jamison stressed that recent scientific progress has made many of these diseases very treatable, she identified a gap between scientific and clinical knowledge of the conditions and community perception of the disorders.
Jamison described her own experience with mental illness, explaining that she did not start taking medication for her condition until years after she first became psychotically ill as a high school senior. As a result, she said, she had become “ravingly manic” within a few years of joining the faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles in 1974.
Jamison characterized her early mania as sometimes giving her great pleasure and endowing her with creative abilities. She said she became reluctant to continue taking her prescribed medication because it cut into these possibilities and produced painful side effects.
“It took me far too long to realize that lost years and relationships cannot be recovered. The damage done to oneself and others cannot always be put right again,” she said.
In response to an audience member’s question about romanticization of mental illnesses as creatively powerful, Jamison acknowledged the scientific basis for this connection, but warned against this romanticization and the trivialization of treatment for these conditions.
“I don’t think there’s anything romantic about this illness at all,” she said. “I think it kills, it destroys lives, it destroys families. It’s painful beyond reckoning, if you haven’t been there … [Romanticization of mental health disorders] is a very real issue.”
Asked about the relationship between mental disorders and acts of mass violence in the United States, Jamison stated that although 50 percent of acute mania episodes are characterized by at least one act of physical violence, representations of mass violence perpetrators as mentally ill are often false.
She emphasized the discrepancy between politicians’ willingness to explain away such incidents using mental illness and their reluctance to support essential infrastructure for mental health treatment and research.
“I get sick and tired of politicians … calling it mental illness when they don’t support mental illness research, when they don’t support mental illness facilities and outreach programs, and then I get sick and tired of hearing about when they won’t allow the [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] to study gun violence,” Jamison added. “I find it rankling. Anyone who is sentient in this country knows we have a violence problem.”
Goff-Crews said the event was of special benefit to the Yale community because it was organized by students and it appealed to diverse parts of campus. She also expressed enthusiasm at the size and diversity of the crowd that attended the event, noting in particular the high proportion of medical school students at the talk.
“It’s great that all the medical school students are here as well, improving their practice, and that’s going to be important for us as well, and I know that our mental health services are working on many of the issues she’s talking about, as well,” she said.
According to Borter, Wednesday night’s event was Mind Matters’ biggest ever.