Dr. Zachary Burton

Adversity: Diagnosed with bipolar I disorder with psychosis

Advocacy: Co-founded and leads The Manic Monologues to disrupt stigma; serves with various mental health nonprofits

“We lean on the brutally and beautifully unashamed, raw power of true stories to shatter the silence surrounding mental illness. In the words of dear friend Dr. Stephen Hinshaw: ‘The key to reducing stigma is contact, humanization, and personal narrative.”

May 8, 2017, 3:30 a.m.: Zack Burton was two years into his geology Ph.D. at Stanford University when he had his first psychotic break. He was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. In the months following, Zack was crippled by an utter crisis of confidence and loss of self. The doctors told his family and closest friends that he might never again be the passionate, energetic, and fun-loving Zack that they knew him as. Countless tragic stories online and in the news painted an even grimmer picture. Zack was deeply saddened by the lack of hopeful stories and infuriated by the misinformation surrounding mental illness, but also felt empowered by the support of loved ones who saved his life and encouraged him toward recovery. He became consumed by the urgent desire to obliterate stigma.

Six days before the two-year anniversary of his first psychotic break, Zack and his then-partner Elisa Hofmeister premiered The Manic Monologues, a play highlighting diverse true stories of mental illness to disrupt stigma. The play was performed live to sold-out crowds and standing ovations at Stanford University, in Des Moines, Iowa, and at the University of California, Los Angeles just before the pandemic. Zack then led a short film adaptation with partner AdventHealth (a 50-hospital nonprofit health care system) in Orlando, Florida in Fall 2020, with screenings as the keynote at AdventHealth’s 30th Annual Conference on Mission, at Stanford School of Medicine, as closing session at the California Hospital Association’s 15th Annual Behavioral Health Care Symposium, and others. In February 2021, a unique virtual, interactive adaptation of The Manic Monologues was launched via McCarter Theatre Center in partnership with Princeton University, The 24 Hour Plays, One Mind, and others. This free platform features monologues performed by 15 actors from Broadway, Hollywood, and beyond (to name a few: Ato Blankson-Wood, Tony Award nominee for Slave Play, actor in BlacKkKlansman; Maddie Corman, playwright of Accidentally Brave, actress in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Tony Award winner for RENT) and includes an abundance of resources and expert panels.

Zack also spends a significant amount of time contributing to other mental health NGOs and nonprofits, and serves as Board Director to the Coalition for Action for Preventive Mental Health in Kenya, Board Member to the Columbia-WHO Center for Global Mental Health, Advisory Board Member to Generation Mental Health, and past Advisory Council Member to Glenn Close’s nonprofit Bring Change to Mind. He is also a Stability Leader with The Stability Network, Peer Educator and Speakers Bureau Member with the Mental Health Association of San Francisco, and finance working group member with the Global Mental Health Action Network. His work has been published by International Bipolar Foundation, Devex, United Nations, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous scientific journals, and Zack has been invited to speak for TEDx, California Hospital Association, Stanford School of Medicine, Project Happiness, IBPF, One Mind Brain Waves, the State Department, and others. Zack received his Ph.D. in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford, and also leads a career as a scientist and researcher, having worked with the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, the consulting firm Exponent, and as Advisory Board Member to a STEM education NGO in India.

In addition to the dozens of brave voices that make up The Manic Monologues, Zack hopes his own journey can provide hope to others going through similarly difficult experiences: all of his “accomplishments” listed above only occurred — and most importantly, the meaningful relationships in his life most flourished — after his hospitalization and diagnosis.

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