Jesse Jackson Jr’s fall from grace shows that the stigma surrounding depression is real.
By: Devin Barrington-Ward
Two weeks ago the Atlanta Journal Constitution released a copy of a letter that U.S. Representative Hank Johnson (GA-D) sent to a federal judge back in April requesting leniency in the sentencing of his former colleague, former U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. who plead guilty to several charges including fraud, conspiracy, and criminal forfeiture surrounding the misuse of $750,000 in campaign contributions. In the letter listed as exhibit No. 27, (click to read) Representative Johnson outlines a series of unusual behavior by Jesse Jackson, Jr. during his time in office that Rep. Johnson initially took as a personal gripe due to him defeating Jackson’s former colleague and friend Cynthia McKinney in a nasty 2006 primary election, however he later realized the strange and inconsistent behavior was due to a medical condition they both suffered from, depression. Below you will find a portion of the letter Rep. Johnson sent to the federal judge.
“…I recall at our first meeting being thrown off by his upbeat greeting…given the fact that he was a confidante of my predecessor [Cynthia McKinney], whose seat I had taken in a hotly contested primary election.
It didn’t take very long before I began to notice that Jesse was not always upbeat. He would sometimes walk right past me and instead of a cheerful “hello,” it would be a sullen acknowledgement of my presence. Then the next encounter would be more upbeat. After experiencing this type of on/off behavior a few times… I decided to treat Jesse just like he treated me. I did not want to deal with him if he didn’t want to deal with me. I took Jesse’s demeanor personally, and my negativity was heighted by my own depression I was feeling because of heavy medication that I was taking for my own ailment at the time.”
While some will view this letter as merely an example of a politician attempting to justify the deplorable actions of a crocked former colleague, I choose to commend Rep. Johnson for his courage and candidness in being willing to reveal his own personal battle with depression, a form of mental illness which unfortunately is highly stigmatized in our society. According to the CDC, depression is a mental illness that the affects nearly 1 in 10 Americans, but a recent California study found that 43% of people kept their depression hided even from their doctors either because they felt that their emotional wellbeing wasn’t relevant, out of fear of being labeled as “psychiatric patient” or even worst that the information might fall in the hands of their employers. In another survey conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health they found that only 10% of African Americans claim to suffer from depression, which is significantly less than White Americans, but less than half of African Americans will seek any form of treatment. This finding backs up evidence found in a 2007 survey by Mental Health America showing 63% of African Americans believe depression is a form of weakness and only 31% believe it is an actual problem that can be treated medically.
With these disturbing statics one can reasonably conclude that there is many more Americans, especially African Americans who are suffering from depression than what the CDC estimates, but many people are either too ashamed or have not received the proper information needed to recognize that they are indeed battling depression. I too along with the vast majority of the public view Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife Sandra Jackson’s behavior as highly unethical, greedy, and complete breech of the public’s trust. But I also realize that just like many other criminals, Jesse Jackson Jr’s behavior can probably be linked back to a mental illness like depression.
Unfortunately our society puts politicians and many other public figures on pedestals, where we no longer view them as ordinary people who are encounter many of the same issues we do. But in reality they too encounter the same stigma, which forces them to hide or ignore issues like depression. It is very likely that Jesse Jackson Jr. encountered the same stigma, shame, embarrassment, and fear that many of us face when dealing with symptoms of depression. That just like some of those in the California survey feared that revealing their personal secret to anyone even a medical professional could lead to the information falling in the wrong hands, exploited by his political enemies as a form of weakness, used to shake the confidence of those he was elected to represent. And instead of seeking the proper medical care earlier on that could have addressed his depression, Jesse Jackson Jr. like many of us allowed his depression to consume him, picking reckless behavior like making extravagate purchases with stole campaign funds to feel better in the moment, behavior similar to someone who uses alcohol as coping mechanism but later realizing that the reckless behavior just led them down a even darker path.
Jesse Jackson Jr’s unfortunate fall from grace can and should be viewed through the traditional lens of corruption, greed, and the ugliness of violating the public’s trust. But we also have an opportunity to choose to look at his story through a more critical lens, a lens that reveals that many of the ugly, unethical, and immoral acts committed by not only our politicians but by everyday people often come from a deeper and darker place, a place where stigma and shame cause for too many of us to hide our depression until it leads to our demise.
Devin Barrington-Ward is a 23 year old Political Strategist, Human Rights Advocate & Racial Politics Commentator based in Washington, DC. Click here to check him out on the web.