Jesse Jackson Jr’s Shame on Us

In another installment of the unfolding story about Jesse Jackson Jr’s mental health, last week former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy reported on a visit to Jackson at the Mayo Clinic. Jackson is under treatment for bipolar disorder, a mood disorder that typically causes sufferers to swing between extreme emotional highs and lows. Bipolar disorder causes different symptoms for different people, but usually what drives someone to professional help is debilitating depression or “manic” thoughts and behaviors.

Jackson suddenly disappeared from public life in early June, when his office announced he was taking a leave of absence due to a medical condition. Rumors and speculation took flight, while constituents eagerly waited for more information and heard very little. He was receiving treatment for “exhaustion,” they said. Then in late July, a statement announced he was moving from a facility in Arizona to the Mayo Clinic, for treatment including “extensive inpatient evaluation for depression.” Since this story began, last week’s statement from Kennedy may be the most detailed information the public has received on Jackson’s condition.

Kennedy’s report may tell us why. Kennedy himself suffers from bipolar disorder, and he identified with Jackson: “It was clear we both had the same feelings of dejection and self-doubt and being in a situation where we thought we had let people down and let ourselves down,” Kennedy said. “It’s going to take him some time to heal.”

As a person carrying tremendous responsibility and expectation, Jackson thought he had let people down by getting sick. I don’t have to squint to read between those lines and find shame.

The shame associated with mental illness is crippling–it keeps people from finding help when they need it. It keeps them from speaking openly about entire lengthy chapters in their lives, life-altering experiences, and healing journeys. It keeps them from finding friends who can identify with the agony of their darkness and point the way toward light.

If Jackson had been hospitalized for treatment of a thyroid disorder, heart condition, or pneumonia, we would have heard the news and moved on by now. We would have wished him well as friends welcomed him home and he went back to work. And he probably wouldn’t feel ashamed. Even substance abuse doesn’t carry the sensationalism of a suspicion or diagnosis of mental illness. Our society is both fascinated by and so quick to write off people affected by disorders of the brain.

I have firsthand knowledge of the shame that comes with mental illness–it affects family members as well. My mom has the disorder schizophrenia, the most sensationalized illness of all. For a long time, I felt deeply ashamed of her suffering. I never heard anyone talk in a healthy way about mental illness or acknowledge a personal struggle. I desperately wanted to feel normal and I had no sounding board to tell me I was.

Fortunately, Jackson has found at least one friend who can understand. And Kennedy has made clear he is not ashamed of bipolar disorder. A public advocate for destigmatization, he has been open about his illness and his efforts to cope with symptoms.

The more public figures like Kennedy are open about their diagnoses and experiences, the better we all understand what brain disorders are–and how incredibly common they are. Each time we hear from someone who has received treatment and is working hard to stay healthy, we have the opportunity to mature in our view of people with mental illness. The opportunity to dismantle the stigma and shame associated with this kind of suffering, which marginalizes people and keeps them from seeking the help they need. Our society is making progress, but we have a long way to go.

The church is also making progress, but may have even farther to go. We have our special brands of shame we heap on the suffering: accusations of demon possession, denials, admonitions to “just have more faith” or pray more. We ignore those suffering with mental illness, stepping over them on our way to deliver casseroles to the people whose sicknesses make us more comfortable.

If you’re a churchgoer, it’s highly likely that someone in your congregation suffers from the same disorder as Jackson, which affects 5.7 million Americans. In fact, if your church is typical of the general population in the U.S., one in four adults in your congregation suffers from some type of mental illness. Does your church know who among you is straining under the weight of such a diagnosis? What do you do to minister to them? Do you care about them as much as you care about the people with broken legs, cancer, and HIV? How do you talk about mental illness in public? Do you laugh at it, express fear, or simply fail to say anything at all? Have you ever spoken redemptively about God and mental illness in the same sentence? Would a person with mental illness ever feel safe enough in your church to speak up about a private struggle? As representatives of Christ, we have power to reinforce or redeem our brothers’ and sisters’ unwarranted feelings of shame. And if your church is like most, your chronic silence is speaking volumes.

Should Jesse Jackson Jr. feel ashamed for developing a mood disorder? Never. But we should be ashamed of ourselves for continuing to allow people to feel the way he does.

  1. Simone Booth says:

    Hi Amy, Thanks for tackling this subject. At Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA, we deliver 35,000 hours of free counseling a year to church members and the community at large. We don’t diagnose mental illness, but frequently work with people who have been diagnosed by professionals. We come alongside people and share God’s love and encourage them to seek comfort in a relationship with God. In some cases, we require people to see a professional who can identify and treat mental illness. The Pastoral Care Team is helping other churches to develop similar programs. There remains much work to do, but God does work through visionary people like Rick Warren.

    • Amy says:

      Thanks, Simone, for telling about Saddleback’s ministry. Yes, God is at work in this area, and I look forward to seeing many more churches respond to the need.

  2. John says:

    Amy, great article again on mental illness. I too have mental illness in my family. Our society continues to suffer on so many fronts because we don’t address the subject. I try individually, as a pastor, to educate our church. Keep up your good work.

© 2012 Amy Simpson.