Is Jesse Jackson Jr doing a disservice to his constituents?
Now we know the reason for Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.’s absence from Washington for over two months. The U.S. Representative from Illinois’ 2nd congressional district — who has been missing since June 10 — is being treated for bipolar disorder at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Bipolar II depression, which the congressman has, is a treatable condition influenced by genetics and the environment. The disorder is marked by mood swings ranging from high, or mania, to low, or depression, and people generally can proceed with their daily activities. Bipolar I, a more severe form of the condition, causes “severe and dangerous” episodes according to the Mayo Clinic, and causes significant difficulties functioning in daily life. Symptoms may vary depending on the person, and millions of people live with the condition.
When a lawmaker who represents hundreds of thousands of people goes missing for such a long period of time without explanation, his absence has the potential to hurt his constituents. Some may even characterize the secrecy as unprofessional and unforgivable. But when it comes to the issue of mental illness among African Americans, if we are to indict Rep. Jackson for his silence, then we must blame the black community for the stigma it places on mental illness.
Looking at this on a purely political level, Rep. Jackson’s absence generated a great deal of speculation, even theories that he was in hiding due to an addiction problem or entanglements with the law. After all, the congressman is under investigation for his possible ties to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted on corruption charges. Not long after Jackson’s medical leave, a Jackson fundraiser named Raghuveer Nayak was charged with allegedly promising to raise $1 million if the governor appointed Jackson to President Obama’s old Senate seat.
Everyone is entitled to some degree of privacy, even public officials. At the same time, public officials are on call 24 hours a day, even when they’re on vacation or otherwise unavailable. Any staffer or political adviser worth his or her salt will advise a politician to get ahead of the personal issue to avoid damage to one’s career— if not political death. With Congress, elections are held every two years. And if constituents feel they haven’t been adequately represented, that the potholes haven’t been repaired, their member was never around and what have you, they can settle things at the ballot box.
On the other hand, the situation with Jesse Jackson Jr. is far more complicated. In the black community, there is a stigma attached to mental illness. African-Americans are loath to admit they are living with it, or unwilling to seek treatment they need, which may include medication and psychotherapy. For black men, there is the fear of being labeled less than a man. And it is not so inconceivable that this played a role in Rep. Jackson’s decision, and that of his staff, to remain silent for so long.
With the trauma that stems from poverty, racism and violence, black America faces mental health challenges. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 26.2% of American adults suffer from a mental disorder in a given year, while 9.5% (20.9 million people) have a mood disorder, and 2.6% (5.7 million) are bipolar.
Mental Health America (MHA), a leading advocacy organization focusing on mental health, notes that while blacks are bipolar at the same rate as others, they are less likely to receive a diagnosis and treatment. This is due to a number of factors, including cultural barriers, a mistrust of doctors, stigma, lack of health insurance, and a tendency to seek help from family and the pastor and rather than mental health professionals in hard times.