Taboo Subject

07.12.12

Why Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. Has Remained Mum about His ‘Mood Disorder’

As the congressman’s staff reveals the nature of his condition, Allison Samuels looks at why mental illness remains taboo in the African-American community.

As, speculation continues over the mystery mood disorder Jesse Jackson Jr. has been battling in secret since early last month, some close to Jackson and his family are quietly saying the 47-year-old Illinois Democratic Representative from Chicago simply buckled under the stress of nonstop accusations of wrongdoing and the ongoing ethics investigation that has dominated his life for the last few years.

On June 25th, Jackson’s office released a statement saying the congressman had been on a medical leave of absence “due to exhaustion” since June 10th. Nothing more was said about the congressman’s health until July 5th, when Jackson’s staff announced that the congressman was at an inpatient medical facility and that his “condition was more serious than originally assumed.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Jackson’s staff announced that he is under “intensive medical treatment for a mood disorder but is expected to make a full recovery.”  That announcement comes on the heels of loud cries from many in Congress for an explanation for Jackson’s absence. Jackson’s office also dismissed the notion that Jackson was being treated for alcohol addiction, as reported by NBC news.

“Exhaustion” is traditionally a term used to describe some type of mental breakdown or disorder, according to Dr. Gail Wyatt, a clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA.

Wyatt says that the fact that Jackson is suffering from a mood disorder goes a long way in explaining why it’s been shrouded in secrecy for so long. The African American community has long shied away from discussing mental illness in public or private forums.

“It is so sad that so many people of color feel they can’t come out and deal with their issues in a productive way,” says Dr. Wyatt. “They are forced to live a diminished life because our community won’t deal with this very real issue and so they don’t know how to get help. Sadly, this smart young man (Jackson) probably won’t be able to talk about whatever has happened for fear his career will be over. It would be wonderful if he could talk about this and encourage others in this community to do the same.”

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John Avlon, Harry Siegel and Errol Louis on the role Jackson's absence will play in his upcoming reelection

The oldest son of civil rights icon Jesse Jackson has lived under a cloud of suspicion since 2009 when the House Ethics Committee began investigating him for his alleged connections to the potentially improper process of filling the senate seat formerly held by Barack Obama.

“This is a very smart guy who at one time had a pretty bright future in politics,” says a close Jackson family friend. “He could have been the next Barack Obama. This one thing derailed him and it’s not even clear what, if anything, he had to do with it. But perception matters and the perception hasn’t been good.”

Rumors of an attempted suicide by Jackson continue to be denied by his staff and family members as well, but those who know the congressman well say the constant speculation and questioning of his character as well as those around him became much more than he could bear.

“In the black community, where the stigma of mental health is still there, getting help for these issues is rare,’’ says Rebecca Walker, daughter of author Alice Walker.

Just last month Jackson’s former fundraiser Raghuveer Nayak was indicted on 19 counts of fraud related to a number of surgery centers he owned. Nayak pleaded not guilty. Allegedly, Nayak told federal investigators that Jackson Jr. asked him to raise money for Gov. Rod Blagojevich in an effort to persuade him to appoint Jackson to the senate. Jackson Jr. has denied any wrongdoing.

Making matters that much worse on a personal level for Jackson Jr. was the fact that his wife Sandi confirmed to the press in 2010 that he was having an extramarital affair.

The Rev. Jackson Sr. bristles when asked questions about his son’s health, and he recently told NBC that it would be “inappropriate to disclose the details.” Jackson Sr. also declined comment to The Daily Beast.

Traditionally, African Americans look to the church and religious leaders for solace and comfort in times of emotional challenges that are considered overwhelming. Though Jackson Jr. comes from a family steeped in religion, friends say the congressman didn’t resist receiving top medical attention when his emotional condition continued to decline. Those same friends stress that it isn’t just the allegations of wrongdoing by the ethics committee that haunt Jackson. They say the weight of following in the footsteps of his well-known father through the years added a layer of invisible pressure that most don’t face or understand.

“A child of a famous or well-known person may be born with a silver spoon in their mouth, but the contents of that spoon is often a toxic brew of self-esteem-destroying beliefs that the child’s achievements come from mommy or daddy’s connections and not their own hard work,” says Rebecca Walker, daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. The younger Walker, who is currently developing a project for television focusing on the trials of children with famous parents, says many of these children falter and fall victim to a host of vices due to the unrelenting strain of being a “mini version of their parent.” “When these ‘children of’ do well, the public says the apple doesn’t fall from the tree, but when they stumble they are accused of squandering the gifts they’ve been given.”

She adds that “In the black community, where the stigma of mental health is still there, getting help for these issues is rare.”

UCLA’s Dr. Wyatt says that during the days of slavery, mental illness often resulted in an even more inhuman lifestyle. Those thought to be unstable were usually beaten and abused more and subjected to frequent sales and transfers from plantation to plantation. Those reasons alone forced most African Americans to deny or hide any form of mental illness, and that stigma remains today.

“African Americans are really traumatized people raised by traumatized people who were raised by traumatized people,” explains Dr. Wyatt. “To endure the many social injustices inflicted on this race meant having to be very strong, and any evidence of weakness meant you weren’t going to survive. Mental illness was something you could not afford to have, with so many other things working against you like the color of your skin.”

Tragic famous faces such as Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson struggled with various addictions and possible emotional problems related to the overwhelming pressure of fame. Both celebrities denied their struggles for years.

Those close to Jackson Jr. say they are confident his condition will improve with the medical attention he is receiving, and they hope he’ll be back in his office after Labor Day.

“The battle isn’t over, because he has so much more to face with the ethics investigation that isn’t going away,” says a close friend. “But getting his mental health back is the first step and the only way to face it. He knows that.”