Gearing Up for Conference Season

John McManamy Health Guide
  • I have attended two mental health conferences this year (a one-day pediatric bipolar event in Bethesda, MD at the end of March and a two-day information technology affair in Los Angeles in early April), but this weekend my conference season kicks off in earnest.


    On Saturday, I will grab a hotel room 40 miles “down the hill” in downtown San Diego for the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting. This is the mother of all mental health conferences, with six days of nonstop events involving some 20,000 psychiatrists and related professions. This will be my sixth APA. Strangely enough, I will only be attending a few bipolar sessions. The content in these talks is fairly predictable, but I will have my antennae up for anything novel or for something I should have known years ago.

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    I’m more interested in topics that are more tangential to our illness, where I am more of a beginner, such as disorders and behaviors and conditions that frequently come wrapped with bipolar, including stress, anxiety and substance use.


    I’ll also be checking out the brain science sessions, as these are where I gain my deepest insights. When brain scientists are talking to other brain scientists, they are totally unintelligible. But when they “dumb down” their presentations for psychiatrists, I almost understand what they are talking about. These sessions amount to masters classes into how the wiring in our brain regulates our emotional response to what goes on around us. Do our genes dispose us to freaking out, or are we totally cool with that upcoming visit from our in-laws?


    The end result of an internal smoke alarm going off in our brains may play out in many forms, such as a panic attack or a personality disorder meltdown or a desperate urge to have a drink or all of them in combination. We may also wind up with a stress-induced depression or a manic episode. The discoveries are coming in thick and fast now. How we think about our illness is bound to be considerably different five years from now, and a lot of what’s driving our new knowledge is pure brain science and genetics.


    Also, I’ll be doing a lot of networking and talking one-on-one to clinicians and researchers and mental health advocates.


    In early June, I’m off to Pittsburgh for three days of straight bipolar talk. There, the University of Pittsburgh and the Western Psychiatric Institute hosts its biennial Seventh International Conference on Bipolar Disorder, which represents the world’s leading gathering of experts in our illness. This will be my fourth International Conference. The bipolar sessions here are pitched to a far higher level of understanding than at the APA. At the first conference I attended in 2001, I learned that depression is far more prevalent in our illness than mania. Believe it or not, this also came as a revelation to most of the psychiatrists in attendance. Can’t wait for this year’s “knock me over with a feather” moment.


    In late June, I’m back “down the hill” for four or so days of the NAMI convention. This will be my fifth NAMI. The sessions here don’t interest me so much as the chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones. This is also my golden opportunity to listen to individuals who suffer from our illness as much as we do – namely family members. Nevertheless, NAMI does manage to sneak in some hard science. This is where I first had the pleasure of hearing Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel MD. Dr Kandel is both a scientist and humanitarian, and I felt myself in a higher presence as he talked.

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    In August, I will be in Orlando, where I will be a break-out speaker at the DBSA conference. This will be my ninth DBSA. DBSA is back to doing three-day conferences, and it couldn’t come a moment too soon. The last two years involved two or three one-day regional conferences instead of a longer national one. No one was about to travel long-distance to go to what was essentially a dumbed-down series of “wellness” seminars. Those who turned up, instead, were largely locals who were “in and out” by five o’clock.


    At my last one-day conference, I got so depressed that I vowed I would never attend another one. But this year DBSA is back to its old format. People who travel long distance are far more likely to be highly engaged, and there will be ample opportunity over three days to talk to them and form fast and lasting friendships, as well as renew old ones. In particular, I am looking forward to spending time there with one of my dearest friends, whom I first met at my very first DBSA conference in Boston in 2000. We just happened to be seated next to each other at the opening session and we got talking. We never stopped. This is what DBSA means to me. The sessions just happen to be a bonus.


    I will be a break-out speaker at a mental health conference in Iowa in early October, and I’m tentatively booked as a break-out speaker for a state NAMI conference in late October. No doubt, I’ll be slotting in another event or two into my schedule.


    I can’t begin to relate how crucial these conferences are to informing all of my writing, from the blogs I do here at BipolarConnect to my Web site and email Newsletter to my book, Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder, to other projects. It is one thing to acquire “book knowledge,” working from home, but that knowledge is woefully incomplete without face-to-face contact with the experts. The experts whose insights I most value, of course, are you – patients and loved ones. Looking forward to bumping into you sometime soon.


    Next week: I will be doing a series of “live” blogs from the APA annual meeting in San Diego, which is sure to include a lot of “aha moments.”  Expect more “live blogs” from my other conferences.

Published On: May 18, 2007