Doctor works through crucible of mental health pain, stigma
Nephrology fellow Justin Bullock has managed bipolar disorder and depression in part by sharing his story and listening to others.
Dr. Justin Bullock knows it’s easier to stay silent. Sharing your story can be painful. He doesn’t blame anyone for keeping quiet in the face of trauma and fear. But he just can’t do it. He feels compelled to reach out and connect.
The nephrology research fellow at UW Medicine is a suicide survivor who’s lived life openly with bipolar disorder and depression. And he’s a gay man who wasn’t accepted by his family when he came out to them. Some of his experiences are difficult. But he also knows he’s not alone.
“I think the biggest thing that I just really want to say over and over and over again is that I don't think that my struggle with mental illness is special in any way,” Bullock said. “Every time that I've spoken — and I've spoken a lot of times at this point — there's always someone who comes up to me who shares some aspect of my experience, whether it's themselves directly, whether it's their sibling, a best friend. And I think this concept of suffering and mental illness is just extremely prevalent.”
The 29-year-old is a self-described “social justice warrior” who doesn’t need Mental Health Awareness Week to spur him to action. He found he enjoyed pushing back when he encountered resistance and now he’s the kind of guy who starts petitions, builds coalitions and joins task forces.
“I'm not in particular looking for fights,” Bullock said. “I'm just trying to live my life. And then sometimes there are barriers that get put up that I feel like are not fair for people with mental illness, or really for anyone.”
He’s evolved that work since coming to the School of Medicine. The nephrology fellowship is his day job, but he’s also been conducting medical education research into how acknowledging and leveraging identity can improve healthcare and provider-patient understanding and interactions. He plans to publish his findings and is currently applying for a Health Professions Education PhD through his fellowship.
“I think a lot about identity and how identity impacts our learning experiences and how we bring these identities that actually can really benefit patient care, but we're often taught to hide them,” Bullock said. “I'm someone who has a lot of identities that are considered marginalized, and I don't feel defined by any one of them. I don't only think of myself through this mental health lens, although it is an important one.”
Bullock has written and spoken extensively about his experiences. He detailed his struggles during his intern year, successfully navigating suicidal thoughts after two earlier attempts on his life, in an opinion for the New England Journal of Medicine. He tackled fitness for duty practices and the perception of mental health in a physician’s career in a perspective piece for the Journal of Hospital Medicine. He also was profiled by Forbes and Vox.
Bullock was recognized for his work recently by WebMD, which in September named him one of its 2022 health heroes.
The California native, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, San Francisco, before moving to Seattle, said he had to learn how to manage his symptoms when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during medical school, solving a mystery. His problems weren’t often evident, even to co-workers and friends, something he struggled to reconcile. Outward appearances weren’t always accurate. His bipolar disorder might come on like a super power, his manic moods feeding the 24/7 nature of medical school with completed papers and projects and all-night work sessions. Until a crash came.
“Oftentimes when I'm suffering the most is when my life is objectively going the best,” Bullock said. “In the external world, people will often think that it's going really well in times where I'm actually really, really ill.”
Bullock used a trip to the psychiatric care unit to get help, titrating his medications, learning coping strategies and warning signs. He feared his medical career might be in danger due to the perception of mental health in the field. When he was ready to take the next step in his career, he did his research and looked for a place that was more accepting and understanding. UW gave him the feeling he was looking for, so he ranked the school first on his list.
“I was very out when I was applying because I had a rough time in residency and so I really wanted to make sure that wherever I ended up, that they knew who I was and that they were sort of OK with it,” Bullock said. “And I felt a very positive response while I was applying and I feel like that actually has continued to be true since being here. I feel like I've had a very positive experience.”
– Chris Talbott, firstname.lastname@example.org