Charita Cole Brown Breaks the Silence and Lives Well With Bipolar Disorder

Charita Cole Brown does not defy the diagnosis of bipolar disorder she received in her early 20s. But she does defy the verdict of how this serious mental illness (SMI) diagnosis could impact her life.

“I have a severe mental illness diagnosis. And I am living my best life. I want people to have hope and to understand they can live well,” says Brown, who serves as a board member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Maryland.

In her memoir, Defying the Verdict: My Bipolar Life (Curbside Splendor Publishing, June 2018), Brown chronicles her experiences with bipolar disorder. She received her diagnosis in 1980 and experienced psychotic episodes in 1982 during her final semester at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She wrote the book decades later in 2015 and it was published in 2018. Brown graduated from Wesleyan with a bachelor’s degree in English and went on to earn a master’s in early childhood education from Towson University in Maryland.

“For me (writing the book) was coming out and sharing my story,” she says, adding that many people live well with a bipolar diagnosis but tend to be among the “silently successful,” keeping quiet because of stigma. The phrase was coined by Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medicine and author of several books, including An Unquiet Mind.

“Media coverage leads us to believe that people with mental health challenges are shooting up theaters and other venues. Many of these shooters are dealing with unexpressed anger. They do not have mental health challenges. People with mental health challenges are more likely to be victims than predators. This is one reason why it’s important for those living with mental illness diagnoses to tell our stories,” Brown says.

Talking out loud about suicide prevention

Brown tells her story for everyone, but mostly for college students and people of color. According to NAMI, the average onset age for bipolar disorder is 25, but it may occur earlier, which can be especially troubling for college students. because suicide is the second leading cause of death in this age group. Research estimates that between 25-60% of individuals with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide at least once during their lives.

Especially troubling is the fact that Black youth ages 5-12 are two times as likely to die by suicide as their white peers. These statistics have skyrocketed since the pandemic. “This is something serious that we have to look at in our communities and with our kids,” she says.

Brown is very clear that suicide was never an option for her because she carried with her the anti-suicide messages of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, where she attended elementary school. “What you teach children when they are young will live with them. Because I believe life is precious, that’s the message that I share. If today is a bad day, let’s live to see what tomorrow is going to be,” she says.

To help guard against suicide, Brown says we have an imperative to create spaces where people can feel safe — in their own skin and their own lives.

“Two women I know, T-Kea Blackman and Jordan Scott, helm a non-profit called Black People Die By Suicide Too and they’re doing wonderful, necessary work in the black community,” she says, adding that one of the founders, T-Kea Blackman, who has degrees from Howard and Georgetown, survived her suicide attempt and now advocates for awareness. “As successful college graduates, we can experience suicidal ideation,” says Brown.

Stigma persists, despite efforts to break it down

Brown shares her lived experience of stigma from family members, from her husband’s family, even her beloved college faith community. But are we in a better place now than in the 1980s?

“I do not think we are. There is still a lot of societal stigma.  And for me, there was a lot of self-shaming. Why didn’t I talk about it for 25 years? I didn’t want anyone to know,” she says.

As a society, we are still not at the point where most of us would feel comfortable sharing our diagnoses when we introduce ourselves. “We might be doing a little better. I don’t think it’s good enough,” she adds.

As individuals, we can decide how much we wish to disclose and to whom. “You don’t have to tell anyone at your job that you have a mental health challenge, just like you don’t have to tell them you have diabetes. It’s an illness,” says Brown.

In her book, Brown publishes her actual written diagnoses from her hospitalizations to point out the fact that even in the 1980s, it was a belief among physicians that “Black people were not smart enough or creative enough to have bipolar disorder,” she says. “African-American people whose symptoms aligned with a bipolar diagnosis would be misdiagnosed with schizophrenia.”

Brown is aware that bias exists in the medical community — and bias can impact the way individuals with mental health conditions are diagnosed and treated, even today.

So, when she launched her book, Brown stood alongside Dr. Karen Swartz of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Clinic, who champions culturally sensitive approaches and teaches residents to be intentional in their understanding of how different cultures respond to matters related to mental health.

“Doctors create diagnoses based on observation as well as what clients share and compare this information to criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). People can be misdiagnosed and I believe physician bias still contributes to misdiagnosis,” says Brown.

In her role with NAMI, Brown shares her story about living with bipolar disorder as a Black woman to illustrate the expectations placed on Black women to “just keep going, no matter what.” She wants to see that change.

“We need to create a culture, i.e. how we do things around here, in which it’s OK not to be OK. When necessary, a person should be able to say, ‘I am not OK today,’ and then receive the necessary support.”

Learn more about Charita Cole Brown and purchase her book, Defying the Verdict: My Bipolar Life at