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Most of Us 'Get It' and Listen Well, Says Mental Health Journalist

By Sue Lockett John

McManamy

John McManamy

Awarding-winning mental health journalist and author John McManamy makes his living reporting on depression and bipolar disorder. He knows the topic inside out.

He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder ten years ago, at age 49, following a depressive episode that almost ended in suicide and what he describes as “a lifetime of denial” and disruptions. Since then, through treatment, self-awareness and lifestyle changes, he has experienced profound, but “probational” healing.

“I still deal with my illness every day,” he writes on his website, McMan’s Depression and Bi-Polar Web. Writing has aided his own recovery and provided extensive information to others whose lives are affected by their own illness or that of a loved one.

McManamy’s work ranges from historical perspective to practical advice and brain science. Yet he was briefly taken aback when asked to assess mainstream press coverage of mental health issues.

“I’m of two minds,” he says in a phone interview from his home office in the San Diego hills. On one hand, he says, “crime stories that mention bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, tend to paint everyone with a mental illness in a bad light. There’s no attempt to clarify that people with serious mental illness are no more likely to commit a crime than the general public.”

Health journalists almost never fall in this trap, he notes. The problems often arise in chaotic situations with generalists trying to report as quickly as possible in a highly emotional situation. “These aren’t stories on mental illness,” he says. “They’re throwaway comments in a police story.  But they create a lasting impression, unfortunately.”

On the other hand, he has seen great sensitivity and good reporting on mental illness. Journalists “get it” far better than most psychiatrists, in his opinion.  And he doesn’t damn psychiatrists, who literally have saved his life.

Journalists know how to listen, he says. “Virtually all of us excel at it. We’re prepared to be open-minded and prepared to listen.”

The results can be powerful, as illustrated by L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez’ relationship with street musician Nathaniel Ayers in the book and feature film, The Soloist. Or Mary Carmichael’s Newsweek cover story, “Growing Up Bipolar,” a compassionate and intelligent look at the complexities of bipolar disorder in young children.

To McManamy’s delight, the Association of Health Care Journalists awarded Carmichael first prize for large magazine reporting at its national convention in Seattle last month. “She took time to interview a family, and really hear what they had to say.  Jumping out of a window or from a moving car is not normal kid behavior,” he says.

Praising the excellent reporting he has seen on bipolar disorder, he says, “Journalists get the basic concept, and just about everybody in society has encountered it in their family or circle.” Based on conversations with other journalists and his own experience, he thinks it’s more common in newsrooms than among the general public.

However, he’s frustrated by reporting that’s “more interested in a Pulitzer prize for exposing things, than for bringing understanding.” He warns that stories that frame issues as controversies both oversimplify and magnify differences in medical opinion. For example, he says, articles that describe early onset bipolar disorder as a controversial diagnosis misrepresent an expert debate, which is over diagnostic thresholds, not the existence of a problem. “When kid is jumping out the window, you know something is wrong,” he says.

McManamy’s own route into journalism was roundabout. He dropped out of college, in what he now realizes was his first manic episode, then worked odd jobs and eventually moved to New Zealand. He earned an undergraduate law degree, and fell into editing, first for law journals, then for accounting publications.

From there he moved into newspaper journalism, as business editor and later a feature writer. His newsroom career ended abruptly when, during a manic episode, he marched into his editor’s office and quit his job.

Throughout the late 1980s and early ‘90s, his bipolar illness had the upper hand. He couldn’t hold down steady work, but still produced three books on accounting—one of which he wrote in just five weeks.      

That’s one of the upsides to having bipolar illness, he says, quick to acknowledge the positives along with the pain. “We are highly creative, when it’s working for us we’re energetic, sociable, funny and smart.” He doesn’t diminish the downsides, either.  “ I’ve wrecked my life several times… with manic episodes of dropping out, or quitting my job. “I’ve lost years to depression.”

McManamy doesn’t consider his bipolar states abnormal as long as he can function in them. “If I’m depressed and able to go to work and function, it’s like going to work with a broken leg.  If I’m manic but able to function and get along with people, I’m functional. Pathology is when I walk into the editor’s office and quit my job.

“It’s a matter of knowing my limits,” he says. For him that means getting enough sleep, managing stress, being mindful of his moods and even moving to a sunny climate.  At the outset, he needed medications to do the heavy lifting until could help himself.

His current career as an online journalist began in 1999 as a means of coming to terms with his illness. This included an email newsletter, then a website for which, as a Connecticut resident in 2004, he received a public service award from the state’s Psychiatric Society, NAMI and the Department of Public Health. In 2005, he began blogging for HealthCentral, and more recently launched a new blog, Knowledge is Necessity. He is the author of Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder: What Your Doctor Doesn’t Tell You That You Need to Know  (HarperCollins, 2006), and is working on another book that connects modern brain science to ancient recovery principles. In 2007 he received the Mogens Schou Award for Public Service from the Seventh International Conference on Bipolar Disorder

But first, and foremost, he’s a journalist. As he concludes in a blog post inspired by this interview, “ Health journalists work very hard at getting vital information out to a concerned public under extremely difficult conditions, and I am proud to consider myself one of them.”