The Jazz Times Halloween Scare

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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Jamison's research is full of holes, but her conclusions are popular because they confirm what so many people want to believe - that creative people must suffer for their talent.
In October of 2002, Jazz Times ran a cover story called "Hard Bop, Hard Time: Music, Madness and Roy Brooks. " It was good timing, since the article was as dark and scary - and as full of fantasy - as Halloween.

It warns that jazz musicians are especially prone to developing bipolar "disease," a "treacherous" mental "illness" that destroys creativity and careers and kills people. Using the sad story of drummer Roy Brooks as his outline, writer Jim Dulzo paints an overgeneralized picture of the dangers facing creative people, misrepresenting the nature of bipolar diagnosis and treatment. He's probably scared a lot of people, and it's completely unncecessary.

I don't doubt his good intentions; it's important to expose the lack of adequate health care for jazz musicians, and I'm glad to see the wonderful Jazz Foundation get some press. But this article is not only misleading, it's written in crescendo, which makes it sounds even more urgent and dire.

To be fair, Dulzo is no mental health professional. He's a music industry guy who interviewed one expert (Roberta Sanders, Roy Brooks's therapist) and read another (psychologist Kay Jamison, the most passionate proponent of the "mad creative" notion). I believe Dulzo misunderstood his first source and was suckered by the second - as so many are - into assuming her research is the definitive, scientific answer to the ancient questions about creative madness. Moreover, as an outsider, Dulzo would have little idea of the heated, long-term controversy within psychology's walls about the validity of diagnosis in general, the existence of mental "illness" in particular, and whether creative people are necessarily more susceptible to it.

This isn't the place to unspool all these controversies, since my goal is to shed some light on the darkness as quickly as I can (some of my credentials for doing so are at the end of this article). I'm told that Jazz Times might be open to printing a rebuttal, since they traditionally welcome differing opinions, but that process takes time, and the Halloween info has already been out there for two months.

So... let me take it from the top, and first reassure everyone of the following:

People with bipolar disorder - even assuming it's a verifiable medical entity, which is still unproven - are NOT invalids, and they are NOT doomed. Moreover, there is no proof that jazz musicians are more likely to be bipolar than anyone else.

In any case, the problem is usually manageable, whether by therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, exercise, better sleeping habits, greater self-awareness - or some combination thereof. What helps is as individual as the people who get the diagnosis; lithium doesn't do it for everyone, which is why they're experimenting with anti-seizure drugs, such as depakote. Besides, bipolar disorder has a much wider range of severity than Dulzo describes; you can get the diagnosis if you only have one qualifying episode in your life. And many people with that label - including those who've been hospitalized in the past - are living productive, stable, and even contented lives.

And now to the major inaccuracies in the article:

Bipolar disorder is a death sentence.

Dulzo's contention that "depression killed Thelonious Monk" is simply false. Monk's psychology may have derailed his career, but his life was ended by a stroke at age 64. In any event, bipolar disorder is not necessarily a "vicious," "merciless" "disease" that inevitably "whips its victim's mental state between crippling lows and maniacal highs." Dulzo overlooks the full range of official possibilities, including the Bipolar II category where the mania is less severe and called hypomania , literally meaning "under mania." There's also a relatively mild syndrome called cyclothymia , for people whose emotions tend to dip and rise (and who used to be called moody.)

Dulzo also warns that "Jaco Pastorius' fate offers a chilling reminder of just how quickly bipolar disease can kill," speculating that "his illness probably led to the confrontation and resultant brawl that killed him in a Fort Lauderdale bar." Who can prove it? It also troubles me how this evokes the insidious stereotype that the mentally "ill" are more violent than the "normal" - in fact, the opposite is true, and by a long shot.

  • People with bipolar disorder "have to [see] therapists daily" and require "long-term, publicly-funded, assisted living."

These claims, attributed to Roberta Sanders, startled me and all the colleagues I mentioned them to. Worse, they've unnecessarily alarmed the public.


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