A Conversation With Kay Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry

The latest installment in our ongoing series of exchanges with experts on the subjects of health, design, food, travel, and sustainability

Jamison-Post.jpgAs a professor of psychiatry at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison specializes in mood disorders. From discovering the science behind them to educating the public about them, she's a mental health expert whose research and writings raise awareness of the stigma from such afflictions as major depression and bipolar illness. She is the author of An Unquiet Mind, which candidly and poetically explores her own battle with bipolar illness, as well as Touched with Fire. Her most recent work is a memoir of grief, Nothing Was the Same. Here, Redfield Jamison discusses bipolar illness in teenagers, the danger of undiagnosed mood disorders, and her missed calling as a veterinarian for The National Zoo.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I say I'm an academic, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins. And I write.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on psychiatry?

I suppose, in general, the combination of genetics and neuroimaging. I think within my own field of mood disorders, genetics is clipping along at a tremendous pace, certainly in the last year or two. There are scientists all around the world looking for the genes responsible for bipolar illness and major depression. Also neuroimaging -- ultimately, the combination of neuroimaging and genetics -- is having an enormous impact on early diagnosis, more accurate diagnosis, more specific treatments.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

How much really good science underlies it, how potentially lethal bipolar illness is, and how treatable it is, and how important it is to get it treated early.

It's a reasonably straightforward diagnosis. The average age of onset is late teens. It's more common than not that bipolar illness will start in the teens. One of the reasons I spend a lot of time on college campuses is exactly that reason. It's terribly important to talk to students about knowing these things in advance. These are the years of first getting ill, and it's really important that students be aware of what the symptoms are and that it's treatable.

Mood disorders are terribly painful illnesses, and they are isolating illnesses. And they make people feel terrible about themselves when, in fact, they can be treated. The suicide rate is high in adolescents with bipolar illness. These are serious illnesses; they kill just as cancer does. They lead to alcohol and drug abuse in many people. They're devastating, and they're treatable.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the mental health world?

I can't think of a single emerging trend. I think that an appreciation of the major psychological mood disorders is enormously important. In bipolar illness, it was thought that people really could get by on medication alone. Recently, it's been demonstrated that the combination of psychotherapy and medication is preferable for many people. But not everyone.

What's a medical trend that you wish would go away?

Overdiagnosis in very young people of bipolar illness. It's an illness that first occurs in adolescence, so it's not inappropriate at all to be diagnosing it in children under the age of ten, say.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I would say I'm very much interested in the life and work of Robert Lowell, and I'm writing a book at the moment, and I had no idea how taken away by that I would be.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

William James, David Hume ... I guess I would just leave it with those two. William James was the brother of Henry James and a 19th-century psychologist.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Becoming a veterinarian. I love animals, and I was always attracted to the idea of being a zoo veterinarian or a veterinarian with the circus. I loved the idea. And, actually, I almost wrote a book for National Geographic about the National Zoo because I'm fascinated that, for example, at the National Zoo, you might have 500 different species in a hospital about a thirtieth the size of Johns Hopkins -- and Hopkins is dedicated to just one species. Here, you have 500 species with different bloods and different bone marrows and different everything, and they can't talk. It always struck me as being very fascinating.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Google. I Google background information on different things. It sends you off in interesting directions.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"Some Enchanted Evening."