Jamison began her study of clinical psychology at University of California, Los Angeles in the late 1960s, receiving both B.A. and M.A. degrees in 1971. She continued on at UCLA, receiving a C.Phil. in 1973 and a Ph.D. in 1975, and became a faculty member at the university. She went on to found and direct the school's Affective Disorders Clinic, a large teaching and research facility for outpatient treatment. She also took sabbatical leave to study zoology and neurophysiology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
After several years as a tenured professor at UCLA, Jamison was offered a tenured post as Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, perhaps the first time such a post had been offered to a psychologist. Jamison has given visiting lectures at a number of different institutions while maintaining her professorship at Hopkins. She was distinguished lecturer at Harvard University in 2002 and the Litchfield lecturer at the University of Oxford in 2003. She was Honorary President and Board Member of the Canadian Psychological Association from 2009–2010.
Throughout Jamison's career she has won numerous awards and published over one hundred academic articles. She has been named one of the "Best Doctors in the United States" and was chosen by Time as a "Hero of Medicine." She was also chosen as one of the five individuals for the public television series Great Minds of Medicine. Jamison is the recipient of the National Mental Health Association's William Styron Award (1995), the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Research Award (1996), the Community Mental Health Leadership Award (1999), and was a 2001 MacArthur Fellowship recipient. In 2010, Jamison was conferred with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of St Andrews in recognition of all her life's work. In May 2011, The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, New York, made her a Doctor of Divinity honoris causa at its annual Commencement. In 2017 Jamison was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (CorrFRSE).
Her book Manic-Depressive Illness, first published in 1990 and co-authored with psychiatrist Frederick K. Goodwin (who says he asked her to be his co-author as he thought she could add a different dimension of understanding to his own,) is considered a classic textbook on bipolar disorder. The Acknowledgements section states that Goodwin "received unrestricted educational grants to support the production of this book from Abbott, AstraZeneca, Bristol Meyers Squibb, Forest, GlaxoSmithKline, Janssen, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Sanofi", but that although Jamison has "received occasional lecture honoraria from AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, and Eli Lilly" she "has received no research support from any pharmaceutical or biotechnology company" and donates her royalties to a non-profit foundation.
Her seminal works among laypeople are her memoir An Unquiet Mind, which details her experience with severe mania and depression, and Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, providing historical, religious, and cultural responses to suicide, as well as the relationship between mental illness and suicide. In Night Falls Fast, Jamison dedicates a chapter to American public policy and public opinion as it relates to suicide. Her second memoir, Nothing Was the Same, examines her relationship with her second husband, the psychiatrist Richard Jed Wyatt, who was Chief of the Neuropsychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health until his death in 2002.
In her study Exuberance: The Passion for Life, she cites research which suggests that 15 percent of people who could be diagnosed as manic depressive may never actually become depressed; in effect, they are permanently "high" on life. She mentions President Theodore Roosevelt as an example.
Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament is Jamison's exploration of how bipolar disorder can run in artistic or high-achieving families. As an example, she cites Lord Byron and his relatives.
An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Jamison is written in part to assist clinicians to see what a patient sees as helpful in therapy. J. Wesley Boyd, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychiatry at Tufts University’s School of Medicine states “Jamison’s description [of the debt she owed her psychiatrist] illustrates the importance of merely being present for our patients and not trying to soothe them with platitudes or promises of a better future.”
Jamison has also received some criticism. For example, in a Larry King Live interview in 2005 she stated about bipolar disorder that "We have known for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years that it is genetic", when the most that could have been known was that it sometimes ran in families, and even in modern scientific studies the extent of genetic and environmental influences are debated. Similarly, in a recorded keynote speech at a conference in New York in 2000, she claimed the genetic concordance rate for bipolar disorder is virtually 100%, unsupported by any evidence.
Jamison, in an interview, said she was an "exuberant" person, yet she longed for peace and tranquility; but in the end, she preferred "tumultuousness coupled to iron discipline" over leading a "stunningly boring life." In her memoir An Unquiet Mind, she concluded:
I long ago abandoned the notion of a life without storms, or a world without dry and killing seasons. Life is too complicated, too constantly changing, to be anything but what it is. And I am, by nature, too mercurial to be anything but deeply wary of the grave unnaturalness involved in any attempt to exert too much control over essentially uncontrollable forces. There will always be propelling, disturbing elements, and they will be there until, as Lowell put it, the watch is taken from the wrist. It is, at the end of the day, the individual moments of restlessness, of bleakness, of strong persuasions and maddened enthusiasms, that inform one's life, change the nature and direction of one's work, and give final meaning and color to one's loves and friendships.
Jamison was born to Dr. Marshall Verdine Jamison (1916–2012), an officer in the Air Force, and Mary Dell Temple Jamison (1916–2007). Jamison’s father, and many others on his side of the family, also had bipolar disorder.
As a result of Jamison’s military background, she grew up in many different places, including Florida, Puerto Rico, California, Tokyo, and Washington, D.C.. She has two older siblings, a brother and a sister, who are three and one half years older, respectively. Her niece is writer Leslie Jamison. Jamison’s interest in science and medicine began at a young age, which her parents fostered. She worked as a candy striper at the hospital on the Andrews Air Force Base. In addition, Jamison interned at St. Elizabeths in Washington.
Jamison moved to California during adolescence and shortly after this move began to struggle with bipolar disorder. Jamison then continued to struggle in college at UCLA wanting to first become a doctor, but with her increasing manic episodes realized she could not withstand the rigorous discipline needed for medical school. She then found her calling in studying psychology. She flourished in this field and was extremely interested in mood disorders. Jamison, despite all her studying, did not realize she was bipolar until three months into her first job as a Professor of UCLA’s Department of Psychology. After finding out, she was put on lithium (medication), a common drug used to contain moods. At times she would refuse treatment because her motor skills became impaired from the medication but after a greater depression decided to continue to take lithium. Jamison attempted suicide by overdosing on lithium during a severe depressive episode.
Jamison has said that she has had a near-death experience, and has written about it, saying "mental illness can trigger religious revelations and visions -- even out-of-body and near-death experiences".
Jamison is an Episcopalian, and was married to her first husband, Alain André Moreau, an artist, during her graduate school years. She then married Dr. Richard Wyatt in 1994, and they remained married until his death in 2002. Wyatt was a psychiatrist who studied schizophrenia at the National Institutes of Health. Their romance is detailed in her memoir Nothing Was the Same.
In 2010 Jamison married Dr. Thomas Traill, a cardiologist and fellow faculty member at Johns Hopkins.