The Hospitalization of Politician Jesse Jackson Jr. and Mental Health Stigma

Illustration of man giving lectureThe recent hospitalization of politician Jesse Jackson, Jr. for bipolar sparked an immediate flurry of input from political pundits. The accepted opinion seemed to be that his career would not survive and his diagnosis and hospitalization equated to a fall from grace akin to the dozens of political scandals we have seen blaring from our televisions. This reaction is a classic example of mental health stigma—the idea that mental illnesses are somehow fundamentally different from physical ailments and that they permanently affect a person’s judgment and competence in a negative way. This stigma can dramatically decrease a person’s likelihood of seeking treatment because it may result in discrimination or punishment—job loss, public judgment—for doing the healthy thing.

Mental Health Myths
For hundreds of years, people with mental illness languished in mental hospitals and were treated as outcasts. With the advent of modern psychiatry and psychotherapy, we now know that mental health concerns are highly treatable, but the myths of generations past still continue. People who have sought mental health treatment may be viewed as permanently incompetent, even when their condition is well controlled or healed by lifestyle changes, support from others, therapy, and/or medication. They also may be blamed for their mental health concerns. We as a society, for example, would never think that someone willed themselves to get cancer or did not do a good enough job thinking their diabetes away. But when the illness is depression, people often believe there is something the person did to cause it.

Mental health stigma can even exist in psychiatric settings, where physicians should be especially sensitive to this issue. A person with schizophrenia who cannot tolerate the side effects of his or her medication may be taken less seriously than a cancer patient who would like to change his or her chemotherapy schedule. These myths of mental illness result in a wholesale blaming of the diagnosis for virtually everything the patient thinks and does. Relationship problems? It is the depression talking. Difficulty with medication? If it were not for the mental illness, he would willingly take it. The list can go on and on, and it sometimes causes people with mental health conditions to feel like they are defined by their diagnosis alone.

Undoing Stigma
When high profile people such as Jesse Jackson, Jr. develop mental health concerns, they can provide the larger culture with a powerful teachable moment. According to health statistics, mental illness is among the most common cluster of illnesses experienced by Americans, and as many as 40% of people will experience symptoms of some mental health concern at some point in their lives. The more frequently we see that people can and do recover from mental illnesses, the more willing we will be to accept that mental illnesses are treatable.

Organizations such as the Resource Center to Address Discrimination and Stigma and the National Alliance on Mental Illness have gone to great lengths to try to undo mental health stigma and are slowly making progress. These organizations provide support to people with mental health concerns as well as their loved ones. But there are also steps that individuals can take to try to counteract mental health stigma. These include:

  • Counteracting myths about mental health. When you see a television show or newspaper article claiming that someone with mental illness is unfit to lead or be employed, contact the company with your concerns and/or provide them with relevant information about the mental health concern in question.
  • Talking about mental health conditions. If you or someone you love has experienced a mental health challenge, talking about your experiences can help to normalize mental health challenges.
  • Taking people diagnosed with mental illness seriously. If someone you love is experiencing a mental illness, avoid blaming the illness for all of that person’s problems or behaviors. Treat him or her as a person, rather than a disease, and work with the person to find treatment that works with his or her unique needs and lifestyle.
  • Advocating for changes in the mental health system. If you encounter a mental health professional who treats clients as incurably ill or “crazy,” counteract these myths and point to what the research really says—mental health concerns are manageable and treatable, and people with mental illnesses are as human and deserving of fair treatment as anyone else.


  1. Mental illness: Facts and numbers. (n.d.). NAMI. Retrieved from
  2. Schiffman, L. (2012, August 13). Jesse Jackson Jr. bipolar: Mayo Clinic releases statement detailing diagnosis. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • FunRun


    August 30th, 2012 at 12:02 PM

    The worst thing you can do to an injured person is to strike them where they are injured and blaming a mental health problem for anything and everything a person does and to have such stigma even in times like these is no different! Would you tell a family member that they should shut up and cure their flu or would you take them to a doctor?!

  • Maggie J

    Maggie J

    August 30th, 2012 at 3:59 PM

    You knew that it had to be something like this when the family refused to comment, only saying that he had been hospitalized in an undisclosed location for an undisclosed illness.
    That right there said to many of us that it was something mental health in nature, otherwise they would have been more willing to be open and honest about what was going on.
    But I agree that this is the worst possible time to talk about whether someone is fit for a job. This is a serious illness, and the last thing anyone needs is to be kicked when he or she is already down.
    Let him take the time that he needs to heal and get well again, and then there can be a discussion as to whether this job is the ebst for his overall mentak health and well being.

  • Paige


    August 30th, 2012 at 5:25 PM

    I do think that what this article states is true, that when we have someone who is a public figure who is openly battling some sort of mental illness, this is the best time in the world to teach society at large a lesson about the truths and the fallacies that go along with all mental health issues. Having a disease like bipolar or depression or anxiety doesn’t make you crazy- it makes you one of millions who are struggling and a voice for the possibility for change. Showinng others that this is something that can be overcome is important for them to see, that this does not have to be all about a lifetime of unhappiness as many suppose it to be.

  • ToTheMoon


    August 30th, 2012 at 11:52 PM

    In my opinion those that perpetuate such ideas and stigma against mental health issues and think negatively of people who have a mental health problems are ill themselves and need treatment.If you cannot understand what scientific facts state then there is nothing else that can convince you!

  • George G

    George G

    August 31st, 2012 at 4:05 AM

    I feel really bad when a high profile family is pushed into the forefront of an issue that they most likely never intended to have to advocate for or hide from. Most are not prepared at all to face the scrutiny or the backlash and judgement that they feel when they are forced into being open about an issue that they wanted to keep private. It makes me wonder how we would react if we too as average citizens were pushed into that spotlight when we were not ready and how much additional pressure that would place on us and deter our treatment and recovery.

  • andrew


    August 31st, 2012 at 1:16 PM

    I’m sure a few decades down the line we’re gonna look back at all this and be surprised and amazed at what we’re doing right now.When we look at practices of a couple of centuries ago where people were subjected to horrible conditions because they were ‘crazy’ then why do we think that the future is gonna look back at now any differently?!

  • Rhett


    September 1st, 2012 at 6:23 AM

    I guess I am still appalled that we, as educated (for the most part) Americans, STILL feel it’s okay to demean those with mental illnesses, as if they have any control over it! They are made fun of, threatened with losing their jobs when they do try to take time off to take care of their issues. This is seriously warped, especially when we have so much good information available now about what mental illness is and isn’t.

  • runninfast


    September 2nd, 2012 at 5:00 AM

    Yes it is a mistake to treat those who are battling mental illness like they have a disorder that they have to be ashamed of. But don’t you feel like in this case his family made it even worse by trying to hide the fact that pretty much everyone knew that this was why he been hospitalized? I mean, if there is not stigma and shame then families have to be willing to talk about it too, not hide it like there is something that has to be covered up. I am really not placing blame on the family or the patient or on anyone really, only stating that until all of us realize that this is not something that has to remian hidden that there will be any true revolution in how mental illness is both treated and responded to.

  • Eric S

    Eric S

    September 3rd, 2012 at 7:43 AM

    I understand the right to privacy and all, but don’t you think that someone in such a high profile role at least owes som e sort of explanation to his constituents? Voters want to know that they have sent the right man or woman to do the job, and if it is something that is too much for him, then we need to havee someone in that office who can handle it along with all of life’s other prseeures. This is not being judgemental at all, and for as much as I wish him healing and happiness I need to know that there is someone in Congress looking out for my needs too.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.