Faces of mental illness, 3 years later: Jim Christiansen

“My big thing is stay well,” Jim Christiansen says. “I don’t want to be sick. I hate doctors. I hate being sick.” The 60-year-old has been off medications for nearly a decade. He lives with and cares for his 88-year-old mother. (Lauren M. Whaley/CHCF Center for Health Reporting)

This story originally appeared in the Modesto Bee


Jim Christiansen manages his bipolar disorder by painting, getting massage therapy and going to support groups.

“My big thing is stay well,” he said. “I don’t want to be sick. I hate doctors. I hate being sick.”

The 60-year-old has been off medications for nearly a decade. He lives with and cares for his 88-year-old mother. 

After losing his job as a project manager on construction sites in 2001, he turned a childhood pastime of making art into a career. 

“You can be eccentric,” he said. “You have to hide out? Fine. I’m working on art. Once in a while, you stay in bed because you’re a little depressed.”

Christiansen had always been an artist, he said, selling pieces since he was 14. He renewed his membership in the Central California Art Association, won awards for watercolor pieces and started writing the ModestoView art column. He is now on the steering committee for the Stanislaus Artists Open Studio Tour and is currently showing at Gallery Red in Las Vegas.

In addition to art, he also found support from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Stanislaus County, around 2001 and taught a course there from 2005 to 2014 that focused on sharing his personal story to help others suffering from mental illness. 

And while he calls himself an “activist” for mental health issues, he is careful not to center his life around the issue.

“There is a tendency to live your life full-time mental health, going to med check, groups, their volunteer meeting discussions,” he said. “I think it can be a trap.” 

Christiansen is one of the 1.4 million Californians under the Affordable Care Act who recently qualified for Medi-Cal, California’s version of the federal Medicaid program for low-income residents. But he said he doesn’t see a psychiatrist or therapist regularly and only goes to the doctor in an emergency. 

In one manic state several years ago, he recalled, he wasn’t able to stop talking. He recovered from that episode with the help of acupressure. In an earlier extreme case, he smashed the windows of his house; that incident landed him in the emergency room. 

“I never want to go back, if at all possible,” he said. His last inpatient experience was in 2005.

Emergency rooms are not the answer, he said. 

“There is no real intensive counseling to emergency care,” he said. “It’s more baby-sitting, seeing that you don’t kill yourself or mess up somebody else. Then you’re released. Then you’re on your own.”

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Lauren M. Whaley

Freelance journalist Lauren M. Whaley is a photographer, radio producer and print reporter specializing in topics related to mental illness, reproductive health care and health disparities. She is also a childbirth photographer.This year, She is working on a series about how low-income parents access care for perinatal mental illnesses. The project is funded in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism.She was a 2016-17 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.Her work has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Scripps Howard Foundation and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX) STEM story project. She has contributed radio, video, photography and written stories to KQED Public Radio, Southern California Public Radio, the San Jose Mercury News, the New York Times and other media outlets. For six years, she worked as the Center for Health Reporting's multimedia journalist. She is a past president of the national organizationJournalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) and spent her early 20s leading canoe expeditions for young women, including a solo-led 45-trip in the Canadian Arctic. She is based in Los Angeles.

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