From the Archives: Kay Redfield Jamison

At the end of her recent essay in the New York Times, “To Know Suicide: Depression can be treated, but it takes competence,” Dana Alliance member Kay Redfield Jamison mentions, almost in passing, her own suicide attempt. She wrote vividly about her experiences and those of others in her book, Night Falls Fast. Ellen Frank and David Kupfer reviewed the book for us in 2000; the review includes part of the book’s epilogue:

I was naive to underestimate how disturbing it would be to write this book. I knew, of course, that it would mean interviewing people about the most painful and private moments of their lives, and I also knew that I would inevitably be drawn into my own private dealings with suicide over the years. Neither prospect was an attractive one, but I wanted to do something about the untolled epidemic of suicide and the only thing I knew to do was to write a book about it. I am by temperament an optimist, and I thought from the beginning that there was much to be written about suicide that was strangely heartening.

As a clinician, I believed there were treatments that could save lives; as one surrounded by scientists whose explorations of the brain are elegant and profound, I believed our basic understanding of its biology was radically changing how we think about both mental illness and suicide; and as a teacher of young doctors and graduate students, I felt the future held out great promise for the intelligent and compassionate care of the suicidal mentally ill.

All of these things I still believe. Indeed, I believe them more strongly than I did when I first began doing the background research for this book two years ago. The science is of the first water; it is fast-paced, and it is laying down, pixel by pixel, gene by gene, the dendritic mosaic of the brain. Psychologists are deciphering the motivations for suicide and piecing together the final straws—the circumstances of life—that so dangerously ignite the brain’s vulnerabilities. And throughout the world, from Scandinavia to Australia, public health officials are mapping a clearly reasoned strategy to cut the death rate of suicide.

Still, the effort seems unhurried. Every seventeen minutes in America, someone commits suicide: Where is the public concern and outrage? I have become more impatient as a result of writing this book and am more acutely aware of the problems that stand in the way of denting the death count. I cannot rid my mind of the desolation, confusion, and guilt I have seen in the parents, children, friends, and colleagues of those who kill themselves. Nor can I shut out the images of the autopsy photographs of twelve-year-old children or the prom photographs of adolescents who within a year’s time will put a pistol in their mouths or jump from the top floor of a university dormitory. Looking at suicide—the sheer numbers, the pain leading up to it, and the suffering left behind—is harrowing. For every moment of exuberance in the science, or in the success of governments, there is a matching and terrible reality of the deaths themselves: the young deaths, the violent deaths, the unnecessary deaths.

Jamison focused on troubled young people in her short essay for our Cerebrum journal in 2001. Hers was a companion to a longer essay on suicide by David A Brent, “Is Impulsive Aggression the Critical Ingredient?

If someone you know talks to you about suicide, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255); the Lifeline also offers an online chat option at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

—Nicky Penttila

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