Dr. Kay Jamison, clinical psychologist mental health advocate, delivered the BYU Forum address on Tuesday. Dr. Jamison shared personal experiences with mental illness and discussed the relationship between students and mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder.
“There is a serious problem with mental illness and suicide among high school and college students,” Jamison began.
The age when many students enter college is also the age when many first start to experience symptoms of mental illness, said Jamison. As communities have come to better recognize those symptoms and offer help, student health services have struggled to keep up with demand. Jamison said that she can’t think of a single student health center that can even begin to handle the needs of their students.
“The good news is that we know a great deal about psychiatric illnesses and their treatment,” she said.
According to Jamison, we know a lot about the presentation of mood disorders. Depression and bipolar illness are characterized by disruptions in mood, thinking, sleep, energy and behavior. When depressed, people often experience apathy, tiredness, a lack of pleasure and impaired memory. When manic, people often experience restlessness, high energy, fast-paced thoughts and poor judgement.
Mood disorders are very common. According to Jamison:
- 1 in 100 people have bipolar 1
- 2-3% of people have bipolar 2
- 15-20% of people will experience a period of depression
- 1 in 50 college students attempts to kill themselves
Most importantly, according to Jamison, these illnesses are incredibly treatable with medication and psychotherapy. She encouraged attendees to be aware of themselves and those around them and to encourage anyone who is struggling to get help.
“Mood disorders are very treatable, so please, if you are depressed, seek help,” said Jamison. “The treatment will make all the difference.”
Dr. Jamison also spoke to her own experiences with bipolar disorder. She was 17 when she had her first breakdown. She experienced severe mood swings through college and graduate school. It wasn’t until she had joined the faculty at UCLA and experienced a medical emergency that she sought treatment. She was prescribed lithium to manage her moods and soon she stopped taking it and eventually attempted suicide.
This is not an uncommon narrative when it comes to mood disorders, suggested Jamison. Mania, in some ways, is intoxicating and gives rise to personal pleasure and professional productivity. That allure is hard to explain, but it is one reason it can be hard for some people to seek help and stay on medication. However, Jamison warned, that the relationships and time lost to mania cannot always be recovered. After her suicide attempt, she restarted medication and began to better manage her illness.
Dr. Jamison has used the experience of her illness to inform her research, her clinical practice and her advocacy work. Regarding her mental illness, the chairman of her department at UCLA told her to “Learn from it. Teach from it. Write from it.” He didn’t suggest that her illness gave her any limitations, but encouraged her to seek help if she ever needed it.
She took his advice. When she began teaching, many of her students were only familiar with diagnoses and treatment plans, not the actual experience of having a mental illness. Jamison wrote papers (initially anonymously) to share her experiences with them. Eventually, sharing her experiences led to Jamison writing a book. When she presented it to her UCLA department chair, he treated both Jamison and the book with kindness.
“There is no doubt that medication keeps someone with an illness like mine alive, but it is also the kindness of individuals [that keeps me alive],” concluded Jamison. “I speak today because of compassion.”