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To Your Health: NLM update Transcript

Piersall: A bipolar disorder pioneer: 06/26/2017

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Greetings from the National Library of Medicine and MedlinePlus.gov

Regards to all our listeners!

I'm Rob Logan, Ph.D., senior staff, U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).

Here is what's new this week in To Your Health, a consumer health oriented podcast from NLM, that helps you use MedlinePlus to follow up on weekly topics.

While the late Jimmy Piersall, the former outfielder and baseball broadcaster, was out of public life for most of the 21st century, his recent death reminds us of his role in helping 20th century Americans understand bipolar disorder and mental illness.

Piersall was the gregarious and outspoken center fielder for the Boston Red Sox in 1952 when he was demoted to the minor leagues and soon was institutionalized for an emotional breakdown that was called 'nervous exhaustion.'

After several weeks of electro-shock treatment and counseling Piersall returned to the Red Sox in 1953 and played 14 more years for a total of five Major League Baseball teams. He was selected twice to the American League All-Star team during his productive career.

During that stretch Piersall also did something extraordinary, he wrote a book, 'Fear Strikes Out,' in 1955 that openly discussed manic depression, which was the mental illness for which he was treated. The book was made into a successful 1957 movie with same title. Both the film and the book directly addressed the roots of Piersall's illness, some aspects of his recovery, and his daily challenges to remain a professional athlete.

Overall, during an era where mental illness rarely was publicly discussed, a high-profile athlete used his celebrity to introduce manic depression, which is now called bipolar disorder, and detail its emotional impact. Rather than retreating, denying, or obfuscating, Piersall continued to discuss bipolar disorder and quietly raised public awareness and understanding of mental illness for more than three decades.

In 2015, Barron Lerner MD, professor of medicine and population health at New York University Langone Medical Center wrote in the New York Times (and we quote): 'Mr. Piersall's courageous description of his struggles with manic depression, now called bipolar disorder, helped bring the disease out of the shadows' (end of quote). Dr. Lerner continued that Piersall's mid-20th century candor about bipolar disorder (and we quote): '...was a really big deal' (end of quote).

MedlinePlus.gov explains bipolar disorder is manifest by atypical mood swings from highs to lows, or from very happy and energized to depression. MedlinePlus.gov's bipolar disorder health topic page explains the disorder often starts in a person's late teen or early adult years, Piersall was around 20 when his symptoms often were displayed in front of tens of thousands of baseball fans.

Jimmy Piersall later became a broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox where he displayed a sense of humor and — in contrast with some baseball announcers — occasionally criticized sloppy and detached play. While his 1985 book, 'The Truth Hurts' acknowledged his mixed emotions regarding becoming a draw in baseball because people came to see him play out of curiosity, Piersall reemphasized his support for men, women, and teens with mental illnesses and bipolar disorder.

Although he did not see himself as a pioneer, Piersall's celebrity, uncomplicated courage, and perseverance commendably opened a gateway for some Americans to understand mental illness. Piersall's career provides another example of the role of baseball and professional sports to foster social tolerance in American life.

Turning to the present, the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research provides a succinct overview of bipolar disorder within the 'start here' section of MedlinePlus.gov's bipolar disorder health topic page. The US National Institute of Mental Health adds a website about types of bipolar disorder also in the 'start here' section of MedlinePlus.gov's bipolar disorder health topic page.

Information about biopolar disorder among children and teens is provided within the 'children,' and 'teenagers,' sections of MedlinePlus.gov's bipolar disorder health topic page.

MedlinePlus.gov's bipolar disorder health topic page additionally provides links to the latest pertinent journal research articles, which are available in the 'journal articles' section. Clinical trials that may be occurring in your area can be found in the 'clinical trials' section. You can sign up to receive updates about bipolar disorder as they become available on MedlinePlus.gov.

To find MedlinePlus.gov's bipolar disorder health topic page, please type 'bipolar disorder' in the search box on MedlinePlus.gov's home page, then, click on 'bipolar disorder (National Library of Medicine).' MedlinePlus also has a helpful health topic page devoted to depression.

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It was nice to be with you. Please join us here next week and here's to your health!