Even though we’ve come a long way, too many people still have a distorted view of bipolar disorder. Media depictions of the illness don’t help the cause — they either romanticize the illness or paint a manic-depressive as a violent person whose erratic mood swings make committed love, work, and daily responsibilities impossible.
The truth is that more people suffer from the illness than you think. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 4.4 percent of U.S. adults experience bipolar disorder at some point in their lives. It can take eight years to be diagnosed correctly with bipolar, so the right information is critical in guiding people to treatment.
The following people have started conversations all over the world about bipolar and have contributed to wider understanding of the illness — either by sharing their story with the world or creating publications that disseminate powerful testimonies and other inspiring content. Some of them are lecturers or coaches that have paved the way to a broader perspective of the condition. Each of them, in their own way, provide the public with the understanding needed to save lives and reduce suffering.
1. Julie A. Fast
When Julie A. Fast and her former partner were diagnosed with bipolar a year within each other (1994 and 1995), she translated her expertise writing a teaching system for English as a Second Language and other system writing to the bipolar world because she couldn’t find a management plan in book form that might help her navigate the murky terrain of this condition, both as someone with bipolar and as a loved one of a person with the disorder. “I decided to create a plan that could be used by anyone, anywhere,” she tells HealthCentral.
Her writing is unique in that it encompasses not only her experience and knowledge of the illness, but also her perspective of living with someone with bipolar disorder for 10 years. “I got to see the illness from all sides,” she says. Writing books and online articles is a natural extension of who she is. “I was born a writer, so I write!” she says. Combining research and clear prose, she enlightens and educates others, not only in writing, but also in her groups and training. Her abbreviated advice to those with bipolar? “Get sleep in balance (not too much and not too little). Take bipolar very, very seriously. This is a strong, lifelong illness that needs a daily management plan. Be open and talk about the genetic reality of this illness. It is not going to go away, and it can be passed to children.”
2. Kay Redfield Jamison
Heide Morris said it best in her review of Kay Redfield Jamison’s masterful memoir, “An Unquiet Mind:” “Humanizing…. She beautifully humanizes a disorder.” Jamison is in a unique position to do that as a leading international authority on manic depression and as a woman who has lived with bipolar disorder since the age of 19. Jamison, the Dalio Professor in Mood Disorders and Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, not only shares the latest medical information to help educate her audience, but also the remarkable testimony of her life that bears witness that bipolar disorder need not be the end of a meaningful, and productive existence.
Today she writes and lectures across the country on different topics related to bipolar disorder, especially regarding the link between creativity and manic depression, the arts and mood disorders. I have always appreciated the way she celebrates the intense dispositions of those with bipolar disorder.
In an NPR series, This I Believe, she once said, “I believe that curiosity, wonder and passion are defining qualities of imaginative minds and great teachers; that restlessness and discontent are vital things; and that intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways that less intense emotions can never do.”
3. Andy Behrman
When Andy Behrman published “Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania” in 2002, he quickly became a spokesman for the illness. One of the first memoirs of bipolar disorder written by a male, his raw and gritty account of the illness drew criticism from the public. People were shocked by how many meds he tried, their side effects, and his experience with electroconvulsive therapy. “All of a sudden, bipolar disorder, the reality of the pain and suffering that came with it and even the discussion of ECT was out in the open,” he tells HealthCentral.
Since the publication of his book, he has been writing and speaking around the country to mental health groups and college audiences about mental illness and suicide prevention. Although he is still labeled as “that bipolar guy,” he clarifies that he is so much more than that: “I am a guy who happens to cope and manage with my bipolar disorder, but there are so many other facets to my life,” he explains. He now lives in Los Angeles with his 12- and 14-year-old daughters.
4. Joanne M. Doan
Joanne was working as a consultant when someone in the mental health industry approached her about creating a magazine for people with bipolar. The mission was personal. Joanne knew first-hand of the struggles her grandmother endured with what was then called “manic depression,” including the stigma she faced and everything — including ECT — she did to maintain wellness.
Less than a year after the seed was planted, Doan commissioned a talented and dedicated team to publish bp Magazine’s premiere issue featuring Carrie Fisher, launching at the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s (NAMI) 25th anniversary convention in 2004. Realizing the great need for a depression and anxiety magazine, she launched esperanza four years later.
What is the most important thing she would like to say to someone who is newly diagnosed with bipolar, depression or anxiety? “First and foremost, that they are not one in a million, but one of millions who have a mental health condition,” she tells HealthCentral. “It’s common and widespread. It’s part of our humanness. Second, I’d say that there is so much hope that they can and will live a fulfilling life. And third, from what we are told again and again, I’d say: Don’t wait — the sooner they reach out for help the better.”
5. Terri Cheney
A former entertainment lawyer who represented Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, and major motion picture studios, Terri Cheney is now a powerful mental health advocate. Her New York Times bestsellers “Manic: A Memoir” and “The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar” chronicle her lifelong battle with manic depression.
Today she serves of the board of directors of several mental health organizations — including the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics at USC, the International Bipolar Foundation, and Project Return Peer Support Network — and leads a weekly community support group at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. Terri’s insightful and entertaining commentaries about bipolar disorder have been featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, NPR, Psychology Today, and in other publications and media outlets. She is the recipient of the annual Advocates Award from Mental Health Advocacy Series, as well as the Imagine Award.
6. Martin Baker
Bipolar disorder never happens in a vacuum, of course. It sends a ripple through every relationship. That’s why Martin Baker has dedicated his writing to help persons with mood disorders and their loved ones work towards healthy, meaningful relationships. “Healthy relationships are vital to well-being,” he tells HealthCentral, “but bipolar and stigma can make that difficult.”
Baker had little awareness of mental illness until a chance online encounter in 2011 with American writer and photographer Fran Houston, who lives with bipolar disorder and other conditions. Despite living 3,000 miles apart, Martin became Fran’s main support, caregiver, and best friend.
“We want to send the message that mental illness does not rule out strong, mutually supportive, relationships of all kinds,” he explains. “No matter what is going on keep talking and never give up on each other. Honesty and commitment build relationships that last.”
Like most people on this list, his path to blogging and writing on bipolar was unexpected. “I didn’t exactly apply to be a bipolar influencer,” he tells HealthCentral. In 1998, he fell into a suicidal depression. When given an antidepressant, he became manic, and was diagnosed with bipolar.
At a time when most health journalists stuck to print, John used the internet to broadcast his message. By the end of 2000, he had his own online newsletter and website. A few years later, he started blogging at Knowledge Is Necessity and became involved in mental health advocacy. Four years ago, John self-published the two books in The Bipolar Expert Series, “Not Just Up and Down,” and “In Search of Our Identity.”
Then his life took an unexpected turn — he suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery. “There is no way I should have lived through it,” he said. While most people might baby themselves following such an ordeal, John hit the open road, living out of his car, sleeping in a tent, and writing about his adventures — still in manuscript form. In the last year, he has returned to his roots, reviving his old blog and beginning the third book in his Bipolar Expert series.
“It’s been one hell of a ride,” he said. “I’m hardly the same person I was when I started out, but in many ways I am. Life (and near death) has a way of turning us into philosophers.”