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October 01, 2013

October 2013: James T.R. Jones

Law Professor’s Mental Health Advocacy Is Personal

James T.R. Jones is a Professor of Law at the Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. He has been teaching there for 27 years and is aiming for 40! Torts, estates and trusts, and appellate advocacy are the subjects that he loves and teaches. The two most important skills he teaches his students? Legal analysis and clear and effective writing—that which avoids legalese and is not overly intellectual—he replies.

What does James consider his most significant professional accomplishment to be? “Becoming a tenured full professor while secretly living with severe mental illness.” He worked at Brandeis for 22 years without anyone knowing about his disability. Only when James experienced a severe exacerbation of symptoms and needed to take leave in 2004 did he disclose his severe bipolar disorder to the dean. Up until then, only James’ parents, siblings, and wife knew.

Why keep silent for so many years? “Fear of the stigma that surrounds mental illness.” When James began his job search after graduating from Duke University Law School in 1978, disclosing his disability was out of the question. He believed that no employer would hire him, and still believes that he would have grave difficulty finding a new law teaching job were he to leave Brandeis. “Stigma of mental illness is pervasive in the legal profession.” His advice to law students with disabilities pondering disclosure: “Realize that not everyone will be open to your disability, so think carefully about what you say and to whom. Remember, your private life is private and you need tell no one about it.”

Ultimately, James went public in 2007. Why then? “Because I already had tenure so that any adverse effect on my job was unlikely.” He shared his lifetime struggle with severe mental illness in his 2011 memoir, A Hidden Madness. He candidly spoke about his powerful medication regimens, periodic hospitalizations, and rocky relationships.

“Going public” for James has meant writing and speaking extensively about the stigma, injustices, and misperceptions that surround mental illness. He is living proof of what someone with a mental illness can do. And, he is quick to point to many successful professionals who just happen to have serious psychiatric diseases. James calls upon lawyers who practice disability civil rights law to “use the ADA as a sword and shield to prevent discrimination against persons with mental illness--the most stigmatized group in modern society.”