James T.R. Jones, J.D. '78: Understanding Mental Illness

June 1, 2010
James T.R. Jones J.D. '78

Credit: Kathleen Murphy Jones

James T.R. Jones has achieved an enviable level of professional success. At Duke Law School, he was ranked second in his class, was selected for the Order of the Coif, and was a member of the editorial board of the Duke Law Journal.  

After law school, he worked for the Wall Street firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, clerked for a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and in 1986 joined the faculty at the University of Louisville's Brandeis School of Law as a professor specializing in legal writing, torts, estates and trusts, and appellate advocacy.

But for three decades, Jones maintained a secret from his colleagues: He has bipolar disorder, a disease marked by alternating periods of heightened excitability and depression and the second-most-serious form of mental illness. "One in five Americans is affected by mental illness every year," says Jones, citing statistics compiled by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. "Yet mental illness is still highly stigmatized in our society."

Jones decided to come forward with his story in 2007, after writing a review of The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, by Elyn Saks, a professor at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law. (Saks, who was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2009 for her work on mental illness, is an associate dean and the Orrin B. Evans Professor of law, psychology, and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at USC.)

In a follow-up opinion piece he wrote for Louisville's Courier-Journal, Jones disclosed the parallels between his and Saks' experiences. "I write to show that people can be effective members of society in high-level and often stressful jobs despite their psychiatric conditions…. My accomplishments are attributable to things like appropriate medications prescribed by an excellent psychiatrist, regular psychotherapy, the support of loved ones, and my own hard work. Such a result is possible for many with severe mental illness."

That same year, Jones published a harrowing account of his own bout with mental illness in the Association of American Law Schools' Journal of Legal Education, titled "Walking the Tightrope of Bipolar Disorder: The Secret Life of a Law Professor." In the wake of his revelation, Jones has become close friends with Saks—they are the only two law faculty members in the country to talk openly about their struggles with bipolar disorder—and has heard from hundreds of people who have mental illness or know someone who does.

On the one hand, it is very liberating because I don't have to worry about keeping my diagnosis a secret anymore," he says. "On the other hand, I am now known as the 'bipolar law professor.' " That designation has kept him busy in ways he could not have foreseen, he says.  He has accepted invitations to speak to nursing and medical students, to university classes in psychopathology and social work, and to the Louisville police department. He is a member of the speakers' bureau for the Kentucky chapter of Mental Health America, a national advocacy and education network. And when The Courier-Journal writes articles that touch on mental illness, reporters call Jones for his informed perspective.

He's not just speaking and serving as an expert outside his own profession. He's actually proposing something concrete for his own profession, calling for reform in the ways that certain states license lawyers. "A number of states ask questions related to character and fitness, and if you have any history of treatment for mental illness, you have to turn over your medical records," he says. "I worry that there are law students who are not seeking treatment for treatable conditions because they fear they will be denied a license to practice."