Since she published a new book on suicide, Johns Hopkins medical school psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison has been struck by how photographers always seem to render her as dour. The professor who brought mental illness out of the closet is anything but: animated and friendly, a thin, tousled blond, she wears a large smile often painted coral.
This despite tough times lately: In recent weeks, Jamison, 53, has spent more time at Hopkins quizzing oncologists treating her husband than teaching residents in psychiatry. Until her husband's illness, Jamison spent most mornings at the National Zoo, observing and interviewing veterinarians as they detect and treat illness in animals as different as orangutans and leopards.
"After 20 years of writing about death and madness," she says, "I felt like I needed a year off."
She'd already made her academic name as co-author of the definitive textbook on manic depression -- mood disorders -- and lecturing on the mental illnesses of famous writers and painters when she went public with her own story of mental illness in 1995.
Her life hasn't been her own since the publication of "Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness," a personal narrative of her battle with manic depression that led to a suicide attempt. The book had an immediate and powerful impact, landing on the New York Times best-seller list and ensuring Jamison's place as a pre-eminent if controversial researcher on mental illness.
The decision to go public was costly. She hated giving up her patients, but considered it necessary; after writing so intimately about her life, Jamison says, she feared the focus would be more on her than on her patients. "It was inappropriate," she says.
It was strange, too, facing colleagues who had no idea she was sick. She found herself fending off suspicion that she couldn't do her work, though her illness responded well to medicine. Telling her story to audiences of 300 was made easier by the support of her department chair, Paul McHugh, who believed her efforts to educate were extraordinary.
"This is what Hopkins should be doing," he told her. The hope was that her decision to get personal, taking some of the mystery out of mental illness by explaining its science, could save far more lives than any number she might help in her private office.
Her latest book, "Night Falls Fast -- Understanding Suicide," hailed by reviewers as likely to increase national awareness of suicide, examines the genetic basis for much of mental illness against cultural stigmas that have prevented people from seeking help. Suicide is the fastest-growing cause of death in children ages 10 to 14, and "it's an awful way to die," Jamison writes. Her point is, the pain that leads to suicide can be treated, but the "gap between what we know and do is lethal."
Book sales are brisk, though as Jamison notes, hers is not a book one can give a friend for Christmas. Though regarded by critics for its literary accomplishments, even Jamison had intended to write something lighter after "Unquiet Mind."
She'd been prepared to give up her practice. She was vaguely prepared, too, for taking her story public -- as much as one can be for getting up before audiences of hundreds and telling a story kept private for 30 years.
But she was unprepared for the number of people who brought her photographs of teens in prom dresses, normal, happy and smiling months before they would commit suicide, and to see the devastation of their parents.
It was heartbreaking. She returned to her hotel after book signings shattered, she says. These were lives that could have been saved.
Her visits to college campuses were similarly striking -- she sought out the venue, because her own illness, bipolar disorder, struck hard when she was in college, and she would have given anything at that time "to see someone who had made it through to the other side."
Again, she was taken aback when 50 or 60 students inevitably would remain after her lecture to discuss with her their own suicide attempts. "All these people who had made serious attempts on their lives and their parents had no idea," she says. "It was horrifying. It didn't surprise me, but something about the sheer numbers hit me."
The cumulative effect of the photos of teens, her talks at colleges and thousands of letters from people who had lost relatives to suicide led her to write "Night Falls Fast." Some of the book's most compelling stories were provided by the people who read her first book.
In a way, she'd been working toward the subject for a decade. Her "Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament," linked mental illness to highly creative people by examining the lives and works of artists who committed suicide. Critics accused her of glorifying mental illness, when plenty of ordinary people's lives are ruined by it.