TV journalist Jane Pauley shares pains, joys of bipolar disorder

Chris Green

Mental illness is a medical illness, and it’s treatable.

That was Jane Pauley’s message Tuesday to several hundred people who attended Janet Wattles Center’s Annual Celebration of Mental Health Fundraiser at Giovanni’s.

The celebrated television journalist didn’t talk into a camera. Instead, she stood behind a podium and told of her own personal account of being diagnosed at the age of 50 as bipolar.

“My goal in talking about mental illness is to help people with mental illness see themselves differently,” she said. “And more importantly, to help everyone else see us in new and powerful ways.

“Because this stigma thing is more than mean and ignorant, it inhibits people from facing a medical issue that’s treatable. It keeps parents from getting kids timely treatment, and that can be dangerous.

Pauley, 57, is best known for her 13-year stint on NBC’s “The Today Show” and 11 years on the network’s news magazine, “Dateline NBC.”

Pauley’s book, “Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue,” has her back in the forefront for shedding light on a disease that few want to talk about or even know how to talk about.

Bipolar disorder, or manic depression, is a mental illness characterized by extreme mood swings from mania to depression. The deep mood swings can last for weeks or even months.

“Bipolar is an isolating disease, and that can be dangerous,” she said.

If left untreated, bipolar disorder generally worsens and can even lead to suicide.

“Some people say the high-energy creative phase is almost worth the devil that lurks behind it,” Pauley said of her manic state followed by a “deepening depression.”

“At best, I enjoyed a few weeks of high-octane creativity and confidence, but after that, it was just an idling engine on overdrive. The intensity of thought was exhausting. Living with me had to be very hard.”

Pauly said revealing her illness was not an act of courage. She said it was a combination of things, notably maturity and a sense of security.

“I had my first bipolar episode at 50, not 30, which is typical, or 14, which is becoming more common,” she said.

She added, “I had a 30-year career behind me. Everyone I cared most about already knew. I had little to lose.” 

Janet Wattles is a not-for-profit community behavioral health center serving individuals and families in Rockford and northern Illinois. The agency treats a variety of mental illnesses including anxiety disorders and depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and A.D.D. and emotionally disturbed children.

One in five people suffers from a mental illness, meaning it affects people in all walks of life. Mental illnesses are a result of a brain disorder and are treatable. Statistics also show 6 percent to 10 percent of children have a mental health disorder serious enough that it affects their behavior at home or school. Many do not seek treatment, partly because their families can’t overcome the stigma of mental illness.

Chris Green can be reached at (815) 987-1241