What's wrong with Jesse Jackson Jr.?

The congressman's office says he has a "mood disorder" -- and shows how we still stigmatize mental health

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 12, 2012 4:35PM (EDT)

Politicians bounce back from sexual indiscretions, financial misdeeds and even drug- and alcohol-related excesses all the time. But the admission of deeper, more complicated problems can still be enough to potentially torpedo an entire career.

Granted, the strange case of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. isn't just about the cryptic disclosure Wednesday that "The Congressman is receiving intensive medical treatment at a residential treatment facility for a mood disorder. He is responding positively to treatment and is expected to make a full recovery." It's about the fact that prior to his office's statement, the Illinois congressman had been missing from his job for a month, an absence a spokesman blithely chalked up to that old chestnut, "exhaustion."  And it's about the way his office this week did categorically state that "The rumor about him being treated for alcohol or substance abuse is not true," in light of media reports to that effect. 

Jackson's career has been mercurial at best in recent years – fraught with an unfortunate association with Rod Blagojevich and the revelations of an affair. But what makes the latest twist so peculiar and ominous is the secrecy surrounding it. That secrecy speaks to our well-established cultural norms of what is and is not acceptable in an elected figure. Jackson's troubles may indeed be a mood disorder. But his office's eagerness to tamp down rumors of an ongoing substance abuse problem speak to the stigma still surrounding alcoholism and addiction. Their vagueness, however, seems less a bid for privacy than a bizarre attempt to avoid addressing what's truly going on. Jackson has been on a medical leave since June 10, though his absence wasn't disclosed until weeks later. His own Web page still makes no statement about his whereabouts or condition.

Jackson and his inner circle are surely deep in the throes of dealing with whatever his crisis is, but secrecy is not discretion. And unfortunately, it only serves to keep the wide variety of mental health problems that affect millions of Americans – and their ability to perform their work -- shrouded in shame. Jackson deserves the opportunity to get whatever help and treatment he needs, free of rumor and innuendo, for whatever the hell it is he's going through. Likewise, the people Jackson represents also deserve someone who's frank about his health issues. Jackson's constituency should have the reassurance that in Jackson's absence, his office is still functioning -- a reassurance that his handlers have chosen to avoid. Instead, they've been acting like characters in a Victorian novel, with their fluttering answers about how someone's had to go away for a rest cure. Contrast this debacle with Vice President Joseph Biden's openness about his experience with depression and bouts of suicidal thoughts – and the hopeful example he's given to others in the process.

Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said Wednesday that "This is not a political matter, it's a health matter." But look around, dude. Health is political. That includes mental health. And if we can't talk about it, either as patients or as a public, how can we understand it? How can we get beyond ridiculous, meaningless terms like "exhaustion"? How do we stop snarking on people in treatment for real and debilitating problems, whether addiction, depression or something else? In the end, it's not that Jesse Jackson Jr. is dealing with a "mood disorder" that's so damaging. It's the sorry scramble to shrug it off, to speak of it as little as possible. They say you're only as sick as your secrets. In that case, Jackson's entire political team must be pretty ill.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Jesse Jackson Jr. Mental Health