An interview with Kay Redfield
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
The author talked about a TV program she viewed
on the subject of elephants and their matriarchal
"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
"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
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
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
© 2003 Reid Baer
* * *
The fame you earn has a different taste from the
fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria
Reid Baer, an
award-winning playwright for A Lyons
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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