The illness that today is called bipolar disorder was called manic-depression when Harvard-educated physician Perry Cossart Baird, Jr. was described as “ill” and was taken “away,” against his will, from family life and institutionalized at Westborough State Hospital in Massachusetts. The rising star in the Boston medical community was hidden away, in 1944, because of his mental illness, as was the common practice at that time.
“My father was afflicted with a severe mental illness, before any effective treatment existed, many years before the advent of modern psychiatric medications,” wrote Baird’s daughter, Mimi Baird, in the prologue to her book, He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him, published in February 2015. “Like hundreds of thousands of mentally ill patients at that time, he was both a victim of the disease and the stigma surrounding it.”
Mimi Baird wrote the book from her father’s medical records, his letters, and his own writings from a manuscript he titled Echoes from a Dungeon Cell.
In letters written after he left Westborough, Dr. Baird says, “I believe that the inadequate understanding of manic-depression as displayed by friends and relatives imposes unnecessary hardships on the manic-depressive. I have read widely about manic-depression, I have lived through five prolonged suicidal depressions, four manic episodes and many hypo-manic phases.”
He writes that he suffered through many treatments, among them straight-jackets, injections, hot and cold packs and confinement to small spaces.
Mimi Baird talked about her father’s tortuous journey through manic-depression in an interview on WBUR. She points out that as a physician, her father had preliminary insights about the biochemical reasons for manic-depression, which she found in some of his writings.
So much more is known about bipolar disorder today, so much that there are several identified types: bipolar disorder I, bipolar disorder II, and the less severe type called cyclothymic disorder.
There’s also “bipolar disorder not otherwise specified, according to an in-depth report on bipolar disorder in The New York Times. That’s described as “bipolar disorder that does not meet one of the above criteria.”
There are many medications and therapeutic treatments that now allow those suffering from the disorder to show great improvement in bringing balance to their lives..
However, according to the Times report, “Doctors do not know what causes bipolar disorder, but it is likely a combination of biochemical, genetic, and environmental factors.
Neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers in the brain, that may be associated with bipolar disorder include dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
“People who have a genetic or biochemical predisposition for bipolar disorder, environmental factors, such as stressful life events or emotional trauma, may play a role, in combination with other factors, in triggering this disorder,” according to the report.
That’s why long-term, preventive treatment is so important for bipolar disorder.
According to Psychology Today, “most people with bipolar disorder, even those with the most severe forms, can stabilize their mood swings and other symptoms with proper treatment. A strategy that combines medication and psychosocial treatment is optimal for managing the disorder over time.”
Baird, Mimi, “A Story of Bipolar and a Daughter’s Search for Answers,” Here & Now, WBUR, April 29, 2015.
Baird Mimi, He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him, Crown Publishing, 2015
Bipolar Disorder, In-Depth Report, New York Times