Lithium & Suicide: Reflections of Dr. Kay Jamison

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Redfield Jamison. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does it feel like to be on lithium? Is lithium for suicide prevention effective?

In her memoir An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison shares her experience living with manic depression. She shares her identity struggles, how she was treated with lithium, and a suicide attempt.

Read more about Kay Redfield Jamison, her struggle through manic depression, experience with lithium, and suicide attempt.

Beginning Lithium Therapy

Six months after beginning treatment, Jamison started a cycle of stopping and starting lithium. Each time the lithium diminished her symptoms, she’d convince herself she didn’t need it anymore. Soon after, she’d fall back into mania and severe depression. Each episode was worse than the one before, and hers were growing in frequency and intensity. 

Jamison knew that lithium therapy worked. She was a proponent of the medication to treat mental health disorders and had an inkling of the tragic consequences of not taking lithium (suicide, relapse, physical withdrawal).

However, she resisted taking the medication herself because it dulled the edges of her emotional experience. During her therapy sessions, she moved through her justifications for why she didn’t need to continue the medication. However, her therapist insisted she keeps taking the medication.

Personal Hell

During one of Jamison’s periods of resistance to treatment, she slipped into a black depression that lasted 18 months. She wondered why life was worth living when she couldn’t experience emotions, couldn’t use her mind, didn’t care about anything, and couldn’t muster enough energy to get out of bed.

She saw her therapist 2 or 3 times a week during this time. He tried to convince her to get in-patient treatment, but she refused. She was currently working in an in-patient facility, and the thought of being one of the people she saw daily terrified her. She was also concerned that her professional life would be over if she agreed to be committed to a facility. 

Overdosing on Lithium: Suicide Attempt

Nothing Jaminson’s doctor nor anyone in her social world said changed how she felt. She was trapped in an unrelenting bitter winter in her mind with no way to dig herself out. She decided to end her life by overdosing on lithium.

Jamison didn’t anticipate that the lithium would affect her brain while killing her. When the phone rang, she instinctively crawled to it in the next room in her drugged-out stupor. It was her brother checking in, and when he heard her slurred speech, he called her psychiatrist. 

Jamison recovered in the hospital after days of going in and out of a coma.

Besides the act itself, the worst part of Jamison’s suicide was the way it changed who she was forever. She had always identified as the girl who loved life, had big dreams, and a fierce determined spirit to succeed. Now, she had to face a new image, one of a pained and broken woman who wanted nothing more than to die. 

Lithium & Suicide: Reflections of Dr. Kay Jamison

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Here's what you'll find in our full An Unquiet Mind summary:

  • How Kay Redfield Jamison first experienced a manic episode at the age of 17
  • How her illness made Jamison buy taxidermied animals and multiple Rolexes
  • Why Jamison believes there are positives to her manic episodes

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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