Nassir Ghaemi M.D., M.P.H.

Mood Swings

What Jesse Jackson Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr. Have in Common

Pity reflects stigma

Posted Sep 03, 2012

Jesse Jackson has bipolar disorder.

Poor fellow, many conclude.

There you have it: the stigma of mental illness. Jesse Jackson Jr. has a mood disorder, there’s something wrong with him. Now he can’t be Senator, or Mayor, or President.

It is ironic: the son of Jesse Jackson Sr., himself an aide to Martin Luther King Jr, faces stigma about mental illness. Stigma is, after all, discrimination, like racism; perhaps worse: you can see skin color; you can’t see mental illness. If you fear what you don’t understand, then the fear of mental illness must be one of the deepest human fears.

Hence the discrimination - worse than racism in some ways.

The Mayo Clinic diagnosed Jackson with “type II” bipolar disorder, which means hypomanic episodes alternating with depressive episodes. In this kind of bipolar disorder, the manic symptoms are mild, but the depressive episodes predominate. Jackson is in good company.

Jesse Jackson Jr: Meet Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King had recurrent severe depression. (So did Mahatma Gandhi.) King made two suicide attempts when a preteen. As an adult, he was hospitalized medically once for “stress”, just as Jackson now has. At the end of his life, he was clearly severely depressed, and some of his aides tried to convince him to get psychiatric treatment.

King is not alone in history. Winston Churchill had bipolar disorder, with recurrent severe depressive episodes alternating with a baseline personality of mild manic symptoms (“hypomania”). Abraham Lincoln had severe depression, that is well documented and widely accepted (as with Churchill). John Kennedy had mild manic symptoms as part of their personalities (“hyperthymic” temperament) and likely had depressive episodes (he was treated with an antipsychotic in the White House for depression). Can a person with manic and depressive symptoms be president? John F. Kennedy provides the answer. (All these diagnoses are based on primary sources, including my personal review of Kennedy’s medical records).

Research studies show that persons with mania are more creative and resilient than normal mentally healthy persons, and that people with depression are more realistic and empathic. Creativity, resilience, realism, and empathy: excellent qualities for a leader.

Depression, when severe, needs treatment. But in many ways, especially when mild or after the severe episode, it can provide benefits. There is no need to pity Mr. Jackson. He is in good company.

About the Author

Nassir Ghaemi, M.D., M.P.H.,

is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, and Director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

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