Fry speaks to the 'real hero of medicine'
The TV star and doctor discussed mental illness at Hay Festival
At Hay Festival, actor, writer and TV star Stephen Fry spoke to professor of psychiatry and ‘the real hero of medicine’, Dr Kay Redfield Jamison, about her work on manic depression.
Jamison dived straight in, sharing with the sell-out audience (filled with fellow manic-depression sufferers, as discovered in the question time slot at the end) her personal experience of discovering she had a mental illness.
After a second psychotic breakdown in her early adulthood, it was finally recognised that the episode of suicidal and depressive thoughts was not down to the original (and typical) diagnosis of stress. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder diagnosis and put on heavy medication.
For 10 years, due to the high dosage of lithium that was then prescribed, “it destroyed my ability to read and write”, said Jamison. “I felt like I knew nothing anymore”. Unable to read adult fiction, the one children’s book that truly helped her through was Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. Jamison remembered how she related to Graham’s character The Mole and his longing for the way things used to be.
This period of difficulty in Jamison’s life, led her to investigate creatives of the past who had suffered from the illness yet created great works of literature. Fry mentioned poet Lord Byron; “He doesn’t get credit for handling life with the illness,” commented Jamison.
Fry, a renowned bipolar sufferer, told the audience how his professor had once said to him: “Fry, you have a great brain, but an appalling mind”, much to their amusement.
Jamison went on to commend Fry for speaking out about his mental illness and helping create awareness. “If left untreated, it is just the same as leaving heart disease or diabetes untreated,” she said. Fry emphasised the severity of Jamison’s point, “there is no talk of mortality rate [with mental illness]…yet statistically you are more likely to die from mental illness before the age of 30”.
They both recognised that there is a danger about society seeing mental illness as “common”, with statistics like “1 in 4 people have mental illness” appearing to have trivialised the illness. Fry said that speaking out may be glamorising the illness, but that it does need be attention drawn to it: “a risk” worth taking.
Once Fry opened up the floor for questions, the many that volunteered their hands in the air were also sufferers of a mental illness. “How do you cope with stigma?” asked one audience member. “When things become treatable…[there is] less stigmatism,” said Jamison. She went further to say that illnesses such as cancer, AIDS and so on used to carry a huge stigma, but now the conditions are becoming more treatable, society is becoming less disapproving.
“It’s getting better”.