When Kay Redfield Jamison was 17 and experiencing her first mental breakdown, her English teacher gave her two of Robert Lowell’s poems to read – The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket and Mr Edwards and the Spider.
“They went through me like the wind,” says the septuagenarian and Dalio Professor of Mood Disorders and Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
With a worldwide reputation as academic, writer, clinician and speaker on bipolar disturbance — including her own — she’s particularly interested in the interface between mental wellness and creative art, especially poetry. She will shortly speak about ‘Creativity and Mood Disorders’, as well as give a three-day workshop on ‘Creativity & Mental Wellness’, at this year’s Amergin Solstice Poetry Gathering in Waterville, Co Kerry.
“There’s a very strong connection between mood disorders and creativity, based on a wide variety of studies. There are very much elevated levels of bipolar disorder in highly creative people — if you look at creative groups, those most affected by mania are poets,” says the author of bestselling classic An Unquiet Mind — credited with changing the way we think about moods and madness — and of Setting the River on Fire, the acclaimed biography of Robert Lowell.
Mania, she says, has a very disinhibiting effect on language, affecting its flow and opening up unusual uses. “Very often, people work that not useable language, the wildness of it, into art — later when they’re well or depressed. Robert Lowell did this.”
Lowell —whom Redfield Jamison says “captured the essence of great art” — will feature in her Kerry talk. “He had very severe mental illness and he wrote about this, and about his life, with great discipline and courage.”
In An Unquiet Mind, Redfield Jamison described her mild forms of mania as “absolutely intoxicating states that gave rise to great personal pleasure, an incomparable flow of thoughts, and a ceaseless energy”. And, while the mania-creativity connection has been particularly studied in the past 10 years, she’s very clear that mania is a nightmare. “It ruins lives. It kills people. It ruins other people’s lives, families — nothing good can be said about it.”
She very much believes that literature, art and poetry can contribute to healing mental illness, though she adds it’s no cure-all. “Art is by definition an expression of the human condition. And making people feel not so alone helps them navigate through dark waters, helps them feel there’s some beauty in the midst of the awfulness and that you can shape your life. Being in the presence of art brings awareness of the great huge possibilities of creative work.”
She wants, “as person and clinician”, to tell her Waterville audience that mental illness is treatable. “It doesn’t have to continue. One can learn from it. We tell our medical students: ‘These are really treatable conditions — you needn’t despair’.”
She completely agrees that, societally, there are ‘mentionable’ mental illnesses (depression, anxiety) and ‘unmentionable’ ones (psychotic disorders). “Lobbing things all together into ‘mental illness’ doesn’t do service to anyone. It makes it sound like they’re all the same. It trivialises the profoundly ill. With schizophrenia and also severe bipolar, there’s a different level of magnitude.”
It’s important, she says, to talk about them. “Depression and anxiety are debilitating to a lot of people. It’s certainly true people talk about those illnesses more, but they don’t get treated more. It’s primitive to keep these illnesses quiet and it’s deadly.”
Redfield Jamison’s talk on Sunday, June 23, will be part of the Anthony Clare Memorial Session, which honours the memory of the psychiatrist. Summing up her feelings about her upcoming trip to this side of the Atlantic, Redfield Jamison says: “If you love poetry, going to Ireland is about as good as it gets.”