"I'm all for fighting stigma. Just stop talking about it ... Speaking as a mental patient, the word makes me feel awful."
In a candid and lively talk during the opening session of the 121st Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association being held in Washington, D.C., television anchor and journalist Jane Pauley described her own journey in recovering from mental illness. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2001 when she was 50 years old, Pauley was faced with the problem of what to tell her then-employer NBC. "I was supposed to feel shame, but I didn't", she said about her decision to go public with her story. "I knew that telling my story had the potential to make a difference. And it has."
Despite her own misgivings about the public fascination with celebrities, Pauley recognizes that celebrities are in an excellent position to inform the public about health problems. She specifically mentioned Michael J. Fox who used his fame to raise awareness about Parkinson's Disease and former First Lady Betty Ford who did the same for breast cancer and substance abuse.
For Pauley, who has promoted mental health through her media work and serving on the leadership board of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, deciding to come forward with her bipolar disorder diagnosis was "the easiest decision I ever made." In her 2005 memoir, Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue, she talked about her experience with mental illness and also described the impact that her diagnosis has had on her career.
In one example of her remarkable career, she noted that her return to "Dateline" after a brief hospitalization was on September 10, 2001, just one day before all hell broke loose. "Everyone had what I had. We were all depressed, we were all scared... To be a journalist that week made sense. To be bipolar that week was universal."
While most people with bipolar illness first develop symptoms in their early twenties, Pauley was a rare exception. Her mood swings apparently began as a side effect of taking antidepressants later in life. "I wasn't swinging from the chandelier," she wrote in her 2005 book" "It was a spectrum of agitation that could pass before your eyes in a single conversation. But the turbulence affected the whole family." She also credits her successful marriage to cartoonist Gary Trudeau with whom she has three children with the vital support needed to handle her symptoms.
According to APA President Nadine J. Kaslow, Ph.D., who invited Pauley to make the keynote address, the need for strong role models is an important part of putting a human face on mental illness. "One of the best ways to reduce stigma is for people to share their stories as well as their successes, and she is a wonderful model for that," says Kaslow speaking of Pauley. "She has helped bring attention to this critically important topic, one that is extremely relevant to psychologists."