In the News: Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Bipolar Disorder

By: Jenna Savage

If you’re a public figure, chances are you don’t get very much privacy. Actors, singers, and political representatives are often subject to scrutiny, and their personal lives are far from private. That’s one of the downfalls of being in the public eye — personal secrets are difficult to keep under cover. And, as happens fairly often, the mental condition of certain performers and politic figures, though a personal issue that doesn’t concern anyone else, receives much attention from the media. Most people have heard about Britney Spears shaving her head or American Idol‘s Fantasia Barrino attempting suicide. Such events are usually followed by rumors and subsequent reports on mental conditions, questions about stability, and publicized trips to rehabilitation or mental care facilities. Eventually, of course, these stories do blow over — more or less — as the media finds some other scandal on which to report. Nevertheless, media attention isn’t always glamorous, and even after the stories become old news, they never go away entirely. After all, Britney Spears’ breakdown is still mentioned in lists, blog articles, and Twitter posts — years after the event took place.

The media’s newest attention-grabbing story about the struggles of mental illness involves Illinois Congressmen Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Jackson is currently all over the news, and not just because there have been some allegations regarding his involvement with the Blagojevich scandal — something news articles like this one on Boston.com mention as an afterthought. Rather, Jackson is being treated for bipolar II disorder, reports CBS, The New York Times, and just about every other news outlet.

Characterized by hypomania — a kind of elevated and sometimes irritated mood — and depression, bipolar II is less severe than bipolar I disorder, reports Mayo Clinic. Nevertheless, it can still be debilitating and impair judgment.

Usually, getting such a serious diagnosis is not a public issue. Plenty of people out there have been diagnosed with conditions like bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression. The only people who really need to know about such conditions are doctors and insurance companies.

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But it’s different when you’re in the public’s eye, and your condition is costing you time away from work, as in Jackson’s case. He made the decision to share his condition with the public, since he has taken a leave of absence to receive treatment.

So yes — Jackson has bipolar II disorder. But in my opinion, PsychCentral‘s John M. Grohol said it best: Jackson is entitled to privacy. Sure, he’s a public figure and there is the potential that “coming out” as having a disorder may, in time, reduce stigma. But that’s not his responsibility. Jackson should be permitted to get well, and then he should go back to his career. After all, as Grohol pointed out, discriminating against a person as a result of mental health diagnoses is illegal. And besides, Jackson is currently on leave, and should be focusing on his treatment — not public scrutiny.