News from the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
You look at Joan Denny’s delicate, gold-flecked scarf. Her perfume tugs at your subconscious as she leans forward; you listen as she tells of a rich and full life—despite high odds for the opposite—and it seems that even the leaves outside her picture window have arranged their color scheme at her bidding. Denny exudes stability and capability. Bipolar disorder (BP) doesn’t come to mind.
But Denny, long a supporter of Hopkins’ annual mood disorders symposium, is quick to own up to her illness and explain how it’s driven her efforts to improve Psychiatry’s outlook. She’s helped the symposium for all of the 22 years it’s existed. And her willingness to talk about having bipolar illness—she does so to a degree unusual even in this day and age—advances the cause.
“Mental illness has been a part of my life since birth, probably in utero, even,” she says. “I don’t ever remember a time without it.” That doesn’t mean Denny suffered it gladly. “The last thing I wanted when I was 18 was to admit I had a problem.” And as a theater major in college, she says, she learned to disguise BP to an extent. “But I couldn’t hide it when I was married. You couldn’t do that with five children under the age of 7, when you were in and out of treatment,” she explains. “They all knew what their mother was going through.” So it’s far easier, she says, to be honest about her disorder.
She’s been equally forthcoming with good works. In addition to the symposium, Denny co-led a church-based volunteer peer support group. Her experience as a model patient, submitting to interviews, helps Hopkins psychiatrist Philip Slavney and others evaluate professionals for board certification. “It’s great fun. Other than interpreting ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss,’ I’ll answer about anything I’m asked.”
“This illness ruined my life in many ways,” says Denny. “But if you can give back in some manner—of yourself or with money—it helps. It really does bring joy.”