June 02, 2023

By Julie Whitehead

Illustration of woman working at computer desk
In 2006, I experienced a series of psychotic episodes, ending with my decision to run away from home, where my family would never find me, and end my life. Thankfully, I was committed to inpatient care in Louisiana for three days and brought back home to Mississippi to ride out the rest of the episode closer to my home in a suburb of the state capital. After being evaluated in a manic phase, I was finally correctly diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my mid-thirties.

The diagnosis shocked me; I had never even considered the thought that I might have severe mental illness. My previous depressions had come when I seemed to have something to be depressed about. My bouts of hypomania were something I considered to be my normal personality. It took an episode of me driving four hours in the dead of night to New Orleans, La. and being awake for over thirty-six hours straight for anyone to put together the intricacies of my moods.

But even before I came to really accept that I had bipolar disorder, I knew that I could somehow make something good come out of my diagnosis. I am a writer and have been writing for a long time. I felt that the more I wrote about bipolar disorder, the more I could educate people who needed to know that this diagnosis, while certainly serious, does not mean the end of the world.

I read up on my diagnosis, building a library of resources about bipolar disorder ranging from memoirs of lived experience to books so dense with statistics and scientific discoveries that you could use them as doorstops. I eventually started blogging about my disorder in 2014, discussing my day-to-day life with the diagnosis.

Sharing Stories of Lived Experience

In 2018, I found out that a journalism mentor of mine was joining forces with an investigative reporter to form a new kind of newsroom, focused specifically on investigations that would matter to the people of Mississippi. I eagerly contacted the founder and offered to write stories related to mental health, mental health advocacy and mental health education.

Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting (MCIR) published my first stories in late 2019, which were profiles of people who have mental illness and a perspective column on my own mental health journey. Shortly thereafter, I also started writing for BPHope, a nationwide blog sponsored by BP Magazine, the only magazine devoted to the issues surrounding bipolar disorder.

For BPHope, I wrote of my own lived experience. But for MCIR, I interviewed real people about their real experiences with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and more. One of my first stories was about a family whose son had disappeared, likely from a bipolar episode. Other stories followed on issues like high costs for medication, difficulty affording treatment and the lack of professionals available to treat mental illness.

Realizing How Lucky I Am

I knew the havoc bipolar disorder had wreaked in my own life, but through talking to so many people about their experiences, I found I had been extremely fortunate. I had resources: good medication, good treatment, good counseling and good family support. Many people I met had none or few of these options to aid in treating their disorders.

Issues about the cost of medications, however, I was familiar with. My own treatment had been severely curtailed when my husband’s company changed its health insurance plan in 2015, and the new plan would not pay for one of my medications. My psychiatrist changed around my medications, trying to find a combination that would work but was unsuccessful. Six months later, I was admitted for suicidal thinking after being stable for many years on my old medication. I wrote about this episode in a personal column that accompanied my story on how pharmacists, patients and physicians worked together to be able to cover the needs for effective treatment.

But in 2021, one issue began grabbing my attention — the plight of people with mental health conditions who were housed in jails rather than in treatment facilities. Some stayed in jails after committing violent crimes while experiencing symptoms of their disorders. Others stayed in jail awaiting placement in crowded psychiatric facilities. But all the law enforcement personnel I spoke with echoed the same sentiments — jail was not the place for people struggling with mental illness.

I felt empathy. I, too, had been picked up by the police as a missing person when I was suffering my worst psychotic break. I had health insurance and was placed in a hospital to treat my illness — but I could see how easily the situation could have gone another way.

I worked on one story about a man accused of murder who was held in a county jail for five years without trial after being ruled incompetent to stand trial. After my story ran in newspapers across the state, the man was finally transferred to custody of the state psychiatric hospital.

Another piece I wrote — the story of a city police officer who was reported to have used abusive language in a Facebook post about a man with mental illness who had been missing for almost a year — resulted in the officer being reprimanded for her actions. Another tip in the same case led to an investigation of accusations of the former county sheriff in that area overseeing abuse and mistreatment of prisoners with mental illness under his jurisdiction.

Now I write not only for myself but for those who cannot tell their own stories. I write honestly and openly about such issues. Someone has to do it, and I accept the challenge.

Julie Whitehead lives and writes in Mississippi. A reporter for Mississippi Center or Investigative Reporting, Julie covers topics on mental health, mental health advocacy and mental health education. She has also blogged at Day by Day since 2014.

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