Kay Jamison was 17 when she fell into a depression that descended into bipolar disorder (at the time called manic depression). But in the 1960s, few people knew much about mental illness, let alone recognized the symptoms. Despite her battles, Jamison managed to receive her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the University of California in Los Angeles, afterwards garnering a staff position and founding the school’s Affective Disorders Clinic.
At UCLA she was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and controlled the symptoms with lithium. But Jamison didn’t always adhere to doctor’s orders. During a long stint when she thought she no longer needed meds, she attempted suicide.
Today, Jamison is a Johns Hopkins University psychologist, the first woman in the history of the institution to receive an endowed professorship in its department of psychiatry. At 66, she’s considered a world leader on bipolar disorder and suicide. The bestselling author of An Unquiet Mind and Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, she’s best known for shedding a light on mental illness and helping to elevate it to public policy discussions in the U.S. The statistics, after all, are staggering. Worldwide, suicide is the seventh top killer of women age 20 to 59.
Bipolar disorder is symbolized by periods of highs or manic behaviour, followed by periods of lows. “In talking about my own story,” says Jamison, “I hope people will have an understanding of what the pain feels like. It is a very lonely illness.” Jamison believes if we can de-stigmatize mental illness, sufferers will be more inclined to seek treatment. “The science of the brain is moving fast, and most mental illnesses today can be recognized and managed.”
Image: Johns Hopkins Medicine
Jane Philpott grew up in Cambridge, Ont., the eldest in a family of four girls whose parents instilled the belief that they could do whatever they wanted. “We knew we had the potential to pursue our dreams, which is not true for everyone,” says Philpott, 51. “I had more in this world than most people, so I had a responsibility to give back.”
Philpott dreamed of becoming a doctor, and after getting her medical degree at the University of Western Ontario, decided to use it in a developing country. She moved to Niger in 1989 with her husband, Pep. For nine years she worked as a doctor and Pep worked in health administration. She saw first-hand the food shortages that led moms to bring in their malnourished kids.
Then, Philpott’s eldest daughter, Emily, died at the age of two and a half from meningococcemia, a serious illness she’d have had a better chance of surviving in a Western hospital. “It’s not a reality of life in Canada, but so many women I met in Niger had also lived through this,” says Philpott. “There, some 15 percent of children won’t live to age five; when I was there in the early ’90s, it was even worse: 25 percent. I wanted to do more.”
Philpott, Pep and their remaining children returned to Canada in 1998. In 2004, she gave a talk on HIV/AIDS at the Markham-Stouffville Hospital north of Toronto, where she now heads the department of family medicine, and suggested to the audience that they give a day’s salary to an organization like the Stephen Lewis Foundation. She never anticipated this would start a movement, but since that day, staff at the hospital have raised more than $3 million for various charitable organizations.
The idea is simple: Each year, a person donates one day’s salary (or more if they like) directly to the charity of their choice. Philpott’s Give a Day non-profit initiative offers encouragement and ideas on where best to give, depending on the donor’s interests. At first, those in the medical profession were the biggest supporters, but today, lawyers contribute more per year than any other group.
Philpott is involved in other development projects, including a post-graduate program for family medical practitioners between the University of Toronto and Addis Ababa University. “In Ethiopia, there’s one doctor for 40,000 people. In Canada, it’s one for every 450.” The aim is to train more Ethiopian doctors to work there.
“One person can only do so much,” she says. “Collectively, we can accomplish so much more. I’d like to do as much as I can to make the world a fairer and healthier place.”