By Jeremy Hay
It seemed like a good idea until late Saturday night. The newspaper where I work as a reporter was about to publish my essay about living with bipolar disorder in its Sunday edition. I lay awake and wondered: What was I thinking when I decided to do this? What I had been thinking, in the days after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, was that often it is only after acts of terrible, senseless violence—including high-profile suicides—that people identified as having a mental illness appear in the media, enter the national consciousness or live in the public eye.
What I came to believe in the weeks after the tragedy at Sandy Hook was that only by understanding mental illness more fully, and by knowing people with mental illnesses more completely, can we have a genuinely helpful discussion about mental illness and how to prevent it from spiraling into violence.
Inevitably, if that conversation is to happen, it will be in the media. Therefore, my responsibility, as a journalist who also happens to have bipolar disorder, seemed clear: I should use my somewhat public status to contribute to the discussion.
I had an opportunity to share my perspective and experience to flesh out a portrait of people who are mentally ill. I wanted to do that in a way that punctured some myths, established some facts and lent some dimension to people who are often labeled as bipolar, schizophrenic and depressed only after they have taken their own lives or the lives of others.
When I approached my executive editor and editorial director with the idea, they expressed some misgivings. Primarily, they worried that backlash would damage me personally, since as a reporter I am in a quasi-public position and vulnerable to public attacks or ridicule in our newspaper’s comment sections. They were otherwise supportive, though, and left it up to me. I started writing.
I spent weeks on the essay, trying to stay on the right side of the line between turning into a “Jerry Springer” guest and sharing my personal history in an educational and useful way. I had to restrain the urge to prove the severity of my bipolar disorder by trotting out the worst experiences my illness had led me into.
But my worries were in full sail that Saturday night. Would the essay cost me credibility, both among readers and sources and also, in some way, among my colleagues? Who would want to deal with a reporter who is mentally ill? Who would trust one? Would I be able to cover a story involving mental illness without a reader or colleague questioning my objectivity? Alternatively, would I be looked to in the newsroom as the resident expert on mental illness? That was also a real fear, because I am not.
The essay—some 50 inches long—resulted in dozens of comments online and more than 100 emails (which still arrive on occasion). My voice mail was full, and the piece generated a generous clutch of letters to the editor. None were negative, critical or disparaging. Most were from people I did not know. They were divided about evenly between people commending me for revealing myself and speaking to a pressing and much-hidden issue, and people thanking me for articulating their own struggles or those of people they loved. Sources too thanked or commended me. The great majority of my colleagues did the same; I found the silence of those few who said nothing somehow reassuring: My mental illness was nothing to be remarked on (or they had not read the paper that day).
My voice mail was full, and the piece generated a generous clutch of letters to the editor. None were negative, critical or disparaging.
It’s been just over a year since my essay was published. The adrenaline rush it produced and the buzz it caused have receded, but I believe writing it accomplished at least some of what I intended. I’ve been asked to speak about mental illness at service clubs and lecture at my local community college (and I make a point of saying that mental health is my subject too). I believe most people know and at the same time forget that I have bipolar disorder. And isn’t that the point? People in the newsroom and community know me as my family does, as a person like any other, and only second, or perhaps even third or fourth or fifth, as someone who has a mental illness.
Finally, because to me this is as much about the health and stability of people with mental illness as informing the general public, I am certain that writing and having the essay published has had a profound effect on me. It is difficult to describe, but I feel calmer and on more solid ground, perhaps from being less “undercover,” and also more accomplished in my profession. Yes, this has to do with my finding an effective course of treatment. But I think, perhaps, it also stems from having helped in some small way to fulfill journalism’s mission: to hold up a mirror to society and shine a light on those who are hidden.