Amy Ellis Nutt, left, and Ryann Tanap at WaPo offices - June 16, 2016
“There is life with, after and through mental illness,” said award-winning Washington Post reporter, Amy Ellis Nutt.
Nutt was diagnosed with bipolar disorder over 30 years ago. Since then, she has undergone the full gambit of treatment, trying about 48 different medications, shock therapy and several other methods. “I’ve seen it all and done it all for better or for worse, I’ve been there.”
Her personal experience has helped shape her career writing about the brain for the Science and Health section of WaPo. Her recent series, “Brain Hacking,” revolves entirely around the mental illness treatment “frontier” and “the struggle over the future of psychiatry.” New methods of treatment? Astounding new findings on the biological factors of mental illness? Nutt wants you to know.
When given the chance to interview Nutt for a live Facebook chat, NAMI jumped at the opportunity. Ryann Tanap, NAMI’s Social Media Manager, began the interview with a question about the progression of treatment over the course of Nutt’s mental health journey. In response, Nutt noted that “we’re really just at the beginning of figuring out what…happens in the brain.” And then she began to discuss the new non-medication treatments that are currently going through clinical trials.
One example Nutt explained in detail was infrared light therapy, which is a non-evasive method of boosting the energy in cells associated with depression by using directed light. According to Nutt, the focus of this research is targeting specific parts of the brain to have a more personalized and targeted response and fewer side effects than medication provides: “We are on the precipice of really understanding the biological sources of mental illness and when we do, I think the treatments that come out of that will be much more successful than we possibly could have dreamed of.”
Another important idea that Nutt touched on is brain plasticity, or the ability of the brain to modify its own structure and function. This idea has helped push the innovation of treatment forward as scientists realize that the structure of the brain is not set in stone. The brain is capable of change, which gives hope to the idea that someone can significantly improve their symptoms if given effective treatment.
This concept reigns true for Nutt as she has somewhat overcome her condition and has been living in recovery for many years. Nutt explained that she lost two decades of her life to the worst parts of her illness, but over time, was able to reduce her symptoms and find herself as a writer. “I ended up being in a place where I won a Pulitzer Prize! I’ve written three books. It really goes to show that you can come out the other end.”
Being a writer is an outlet that allows Nutt to express herself in a way that works congruently with her therapy. She also listed a few other coping techniques that keep her symptoms at bay such as swimming, sculpting and playing golf. “I’m a product of great therapy,” says Nutt, “If you keep plugging away, day in and day out, you get there.” As someone who once believed the life she wanted was not possible because of her illness, this was a message she was passionate to share.
Nutt also pointed out that even though understanding the biological factors of mental illness is crucial, we can’t forget that we have to prioritize treating people now. “We have to give people a place where they can deal with their illness and find their own success in their own world.”
Nutt was not only an informative person to interview, but also an inspirational one. Throughout the chat, she repeatedly brought hope into the conversation and reminded us all of the importance to see the person, not the condition: “I am not bipolar. I am not a bipolar person. I have bipolar illness. I am not the illness. It’s a part of me, and I embrace that now. But, we are more than a diagnosis.”