Carrion-Miles to Purgatory Event Part 1

One of the many benefits of living in Baltimore, is being close to some truly amazing events, many of them free.  On Friday, December 8, my husband and I went to a symposium and concert presented by The Peabody Institute and The Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center.  The event was titled “Carrion-Miles to Purgatory” which is taken from the renowned poet Robert Lowell’s work.  Robert Lowell was the theme that brought the event together.  Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD recently published a book titled “Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire”, which is a biography that focuses on Robert Lowell’s mania in relation to his poetry.  The concert was absolutely phenomenal, and I will be writing about that portion next week.  This week I am going to focus on the first half of this event.

The symposium started at 6pm.  My husband and I went to a café to have dinner and then walked over to the building the symposium and concert were to take place in.  I was so excited when I found out that the symposium was taking place in the Peabody Library.  Take a look at some of the photos I took of this library last year during a tour.


Phenomenal, right?  As a book lover, I was in heaven.  As someone who appreciates architecture, I was thrilled.  And as a mental health advocate and education lover, I was excited for the talks.

The symposium began with an introduction by J. Raymond DePaulo, Jr, MD.  Dr. DePaulo is the Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center.  (I am actually going to be attending a mental health forum on Wednesday, December 13 at a local library in which Dr. DePaulo will be the speaker.  You will hear more about him after that event.)

The first speaker was Karen L. Swartz, MD.  Dr. Swartz is an associate professor and director of Clinical Programs at Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center, as well as Director of Adolescent Depression Awareness Program(ADAP).  Dr. Swartz gave an introduction to depression and bipolar disorder.  She explained the symptoms of depression and reviewed healthy behaviors.

A list of her healthy behaviors, in my own words:

  1. Get adequate sleep (typically at least 8 hours)
  2. Exercise regularly
  3. Eat healthy foods
  4. Participate in social events
  5. Engage in activities you enjoy

Note: I have been doing all of these recently.  Go me!

Dr. Swartz began her talk by explaining the difference between “depression” and “Depression”.  Depression with a capital “D” is often misunderstood in part because people will often describe themselves as depressed when they have a bad day or are feeling a bit down.  Thought, Depression is a dangerous medical illness.  In addition to that clarification, Dr. Swartz provided a great introduction to mood disorders for those who were not familiar.  She also told us about an app for adolescent depression, and reviewed some of the obstacles for getting people treatment and keeping them on that treatment.  Some examples she gave were medication side effects and parents who adamantly believe their teen is just difficult, not sick.

Something that Dr. Swartz as well as the other speakers said, which resonated with me, is that depression is a serious and sometimes fatal illness.  This is a fact that so many people do not understand.  Saying or thinking that someone is weak for being depressed is an example of a complete misunderstanding of the illness.  Clinical depression can be a deadly, chronic illness.

Dr. Swartz then introduced our next speaker, James “Jimmy” Potash, MD, MPH.  Dr. Potash has had the type of career, up to this point, that leaves you thinking, “damn, and what am I doing?”.  You can read his full career summary here.  He is currently the Henry Phipps Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, as well as Department Director and Psychiatrist-in-Chief of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.  In addition to that, he is also an active clinician.  Dr. Potash’s current focus is on genetics and mood disorders.  He is not only looking at how mood disorders are passed through a family tree, but also how mapping someone’s genome can provide clues of what type of treatment may be right for them.  He gave a fascinating talk that left me both curious and amazed at the recent advancements in science and how they can be used for mental illness’.

The last speaker was Kay Redfield Jamison, PhD.  Jamison has written many books, including the highlight of the night.  Her writings include:

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness (I’ve read this, it is a great book, I plan to write a review)

Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide (This book is in my pile of to-read, keep an eye out for my review)

Nothing Was the Same: A Memoir

Exuberance: The Passion for Life (On my Amazon wish list, keep an eye out for my review)

Manic-Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression (textbook)

In addition to being an author and someone who lives with bipolar disorder, Jamison is The Dalio Professor in Mood Disorders, Professor of Psychiatry, and Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center.

Jamison focused her talk on mood disorders, creativity, and suicide rates of those in creative fields.  Jamison explained that there is a larger prevalence of mood disorders among creatives such as poets, artists, and musicians.  She also shared data showing that the suicide rate is higher than the average in society among those creatives.

Many people say that taking medication for their illness dulls their creativity, but Jamison said that is not typically true.  She also expounded on the cost benefit ratio of receiving treatment vs not receiving treatment.  Lack of treatment may or may not affect ones creativity, but it will effect how they feel and can increase their likelihood of dying by suicide.  Jamison ended with a recording of Robert Lowell reading one of his poems.  After spending the last few weeks reading Jamison’s book about Lowell, it was interesting to hear his poems in his own voice, at his own pace, with pauses as they were meant to be.

The end of the first half of the night came with an introduction of Michael Hersch.  I will be talking more about Hersch next week when I go over the concert, but as a teaser, Hersch is the composer of the music we were about to hear.  Hersch is an award wining composer who composes pieces that, as The New York Times says, is “often startling in their complexity, beauty and demonic fury.”

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