A Man
Overboard

 

 

An interview with Kay Redfield Jamison


Touched With Genius

C.G. Jung waited until the end of his life to explain how he developed his work and his theory as the founder of Analytical Psychology in the book Memories, Dreams, Reflections. (with the assistance of Anielle Jaffe)

Kay Redfield Jamison didn't wait until the end of her psychiatric career to personalize her experience. In 1995, she courageously blew the proverbial doors off the academic walls with her seminal work An Unquiet Mind. She shocked her professional colleagues at Johns Hopkins University by going public with her own manic depressive struggle. The book became a New York Times bestseller.

After completing her undergraduate and graduate work at UCLA, Jamison became a National Science Foundation Research Fellow, a John F. Kennedy Scholar, and UCLA Graduate Woman of the Year. She was selected as one of five people for the PBS-TV series "Great Minds of Medicine" and was chosen by Time Magazine as a "Hero of Medicine." She is co-author of the standard medical textbook on manic-depression.

She has published over 100 articles in academic journals and has authored or co-authored five books, including Touched With Fire, a groundbreaking study of manic-depression and creativity.

So, is there anything good about depression? Will it make me a better writer? I asked her.

"There's nothing good about depression," Jamison declared in a phone conversation with A Man Overboard. "It's painful and kills a huge number of people every year. It's agony for people who have it."

Her national bestseller, Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, was chosen by the New York Times as a "Notable Book of 1999."

"I have become increasingly optimistic about the possibilities of suicide prevention but deeply frustrated by the lack of public and professional awareness of the terrible toll it takes," she said. "Suicide is the third leading cause of death in 19 to 24-year olds and globally kills over one million people a year."

A creative person does not need to "go over the edge to get to the point where you learn from it," she added.

However, developmental growth can occur from those who survive depression.

"Once back on the other side, if you can somehow struggle with it and come to terms with it, and learn from it, you are a better person," the psychologist noted. "I see person after person in the arts and science, patients in clinics; there is a sense of having learned from suffering, a recognition of what people have gone through in depression. That 'word' is no longer an abstraction. It has a meaning that can help someone reach out to that other person."

Survivors obtain a "kind of kindness" toward people.

"You might have tried to understand people who are suffering, but unless you experience it for yourself and see sides of yourself you never wanted to see - you'll never develop the willingness to deal with it."

And, yes. Men are predominantly in the "unwilling to deal with it" category.

"I think it's true that men are more in denial," Jamison stated. "It's become less true, however. I'm impressed when a man does grapple with these things. He comes out a more interesting person."

Many depressed people are able to come out of it and simply "put it behind them," she added.

"They want to move on and don't want to dwell on it," Jamison noted. "There's a thousand ways of coping with depression, each man must cope in his own way."

She said many of her men friends may not have called their problem by the name depression, but they "didn't deny they had it."

"A woman would more readily call it depression," she continued. "A man will say 'I just don't have the kind of energy I used to have.'"

A lack of enthusiasm may be a sign of depression, she added. If a man is sleeping too much or not enough, he may be depressed. The answers are very often manifested in the body's ailments.

"If you look at how people get into treatment, it's often through a GP (general practitioner)," she noted. "It's great when he [the doctor] picks it up."

Jamison said physicians have a higher rate of mood disorders, including depression. She advocates educating doctors about the signs of depression. There's an ongoing effort to educate pediatricians, in particular, because the onset of depression begins at an early age. Programs in the schools are becoming more common to help detect depression in children.

"Kids should be told about it," she said. "It's really common. Fathers who have depression in their family should sit down and talk about it with their children. Discuss it matter-of-factly."

The author said that parents should not wait until their child is a teenager to talk about depression, or any other meaningful subjects.

Particularly around young males, suicide prevention information should be made available. According to Jamison, boys are five times more likely to kill themselves than girls.

"If you have to wait 'til a kid is 13 or 14 to talk about spiritual things, you probably haven't done a very good job," she declared. "Spiritual things should be talked about from the time of birth."

When it comes to spiritual things, Jamison called herself "a complete piker."

"I go to church once a month and when I have been high, I feel very spiritual," she recalled. "I feel a general spiritual sense and a connectedness with nature and the world."

Spirituality is an important issue to her, but not "a central issue."

Jamison said adult males tend to delay getting into treatment for depression and end up medicating themselves. Substance abuse and alcoholism is a major problem with depressed men.

"Women tend to be more willing to seek general health care," the psychologist said. "They're more willing to seek out physicians if they're not feeling well ... so they tend to get the help they need."

Mental Health disease is not a benign illness, she stated emphatically. People in all kinds of professions suffer with real problems that even C.G. Jung can't help with analytical psychology.

"I love Jung in a very general sense and I always found his work infinitely more interesting than Freud, and more poetic," Jamison said. "He was more in tune with religion and the arts and what is meaningful in life."

However, she said she was not willing to "romanticize" depression in any way.

"I do believe there is a very strong Jungian component to people who are initiated into madness," she said. "People are set before a series of awful adventures and if you relive the experience on the other side of it, it doesn't have the awfulness. It can be put to good use - coming back."

The "adventures" can be so harrowing that lives are lost. Some who have endured should not return, Jamison urged. Those people need to be "defended" very often with the use of medication.

Referencing her own use of medication, she said "the stuff works."

"I would no more consider not being on medication," she intoned. "I can't live without it and wouldn't want to live without it."

Jamison said that any kind of therapy or mythopoetic initiation must be entered into with great care when dealing with a depressed person.

"You don't usually recommend regressive therapy," she said. "Even Freud was aware you didn't want people to undergo psychoanalysis if the patient was depressed."

The last thing a person with severe mood disorders needs is dealing with "heavy complex psychological influences." People should wait until they're strong enough, she recommends.

"If you don't wait, it's like battering the immune system and then exposing it to sources of infection," she explained, "but that doesn't mean they don't get it when they're well."

As Jung developed his own theories after breaking philosophically with Freud, he discovered the healing power of creativity in art, writing and dance.

"One of the things I do is encourage people to write and write and write about their experience," she said, "then put it aside and go back to it later. I tell them to then go through it as best they can, a bit at a time. It's something that you don't want to peel over without learning something from it."

As much a she admired Jung, Jamison said her approach was "biological."

It is also very personal.

"There's no point writing if you're not going to be honest," she continued. "I spent so many years feeling like a hypocrite around people who were depressed, knowing I had the illness. So when I finally did go public, I wanted to be as direct as I could be."

Her new book is due out this year, aptly entitled Exuberance.

Men and women alike around the world have benefited from her work.

In a "Letter To The Editor," noted men's author Jed Diamond said this:

"What often gets us to go for help is that we identify with someone we admire who has experienced what we have and reached out for help. For me, that person was Kay Redfield Jamison."

"Women are often left for better or worse to their own counsel with one another, and as such they talk much more about it with people around them, including children and themselves. Because women have a monthly cycle opposed to a life cycle, they get hit much more often with mood fluctuations," Jamison explained. "A man may have many episodes, but will usually go without dealing with them."

The author talked about a TV program she viewed on the subject of elephants and their matriarchal society.

"Young male elephants go out and they are quite solitary," she noted. "The only times males get together is during the breeding period in an adversarial role. They're not talking about anything, they're competing."

Conversely, the female elephants are drawn together and are constantly communicating with each other.

"Female elephants have a system set up if one is in distress," she continued, "and they are more likely to be there to serve and help one another."

Like male elephants in an adversarial role, human men have an "irritability" that is "part and parcel" of depression, the doctor noted.

"It's one of the diagnostic criteria for depression and mania, more common than not," she explained. "Emotions get so ratched up, it's often we see men with short-tempered fuses. It makes depression difficult for others to be around."

Jamison said there's a tendency to think of depression only as a "flatness, irritability, or apathy."

She said depression has been around a long time, even back in the hunter-gatherer societies.

"It's more about what you do with it," she said. "We have to remember that the brain is very complicated. It's more sensitive to chemical changes than to anything else in the body."

How does Kay deal with depression?

"I think I'm blessed with great friends," she intoned, happily. "I'm blessed with a pretty enthusiastic temperament. It's easier to stay in keel that way. My parents passed on an exuberant temperament to me."

A person who is mildly exuberant is easy to discourage, she added.

Jamison encouraged men with "any questions at all" to seek treatment early because if it "goes on for a protracted period of time, it's harder and harder to treat."

"There is a fragile part to men," she concluded, "but remember, that fragile part keeps you alive."

© 2003 Reid Baer

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The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria Vanderbilt

Reid Baer, an award-winning playwright for “A Lyon’s Tale” is also a newspaper journalist, a poet with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide, and a novelist with his first book released this month entitled Kill The Story. Baer has been a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and currently edits The New Warrior Journal for The ManKind Project www.mkp.org . He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.



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