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Jackson Jr.’s ailment is real



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Updated: June 14, 2013 6:11AM

Is he or isn’t he? That question swirls around the ongoing tragedy of former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

Nearly a year ago, Jackson vanished from the halls of Congress and the streets of Chicago’s 1st Congressional District. Slowly and painfully the news leaked. First, he was suffering from exhaustion. Then, he was in treatment. Then, a diagnosis of “bipolar disorder.” Then, his resignation from Congress.

Jackson now admits to misspending $750,000 in campaign funds on appliances, furniture, celebrity paraphernalia and furs. He is expected to be sentenced in federal court July 1.

The bigger tragedy: Many people, including his former constituents, refuse to believe he is ill. I am regularly asked by readers, friends and family. “He’s not really sick.” “He’s faking it, right?” “He’s hiding from federal investigators, angling for mercy from the judge.”

I had my doubts, at first. There’s certainly no doubt that he has committed crimes and betrayed the public trust.

All indications, public and private, point to a man struggling mightily with mental illness. Yet, many turn a deaf ear. Take this letter from Scott Sinclair, published last week in the Chicago Sun-Times:

“Political correctness requires those in the media to take seriously Jesse Jackson Jr.’s bipolar issues,” writes Sinclair of Gurnee. “However, those of us in the audience are not falling for this dog-and-pony show.”

I wish Sinclair had been in the audience at a program I recently moderated for the Chicago Headline Club. “A Conversation on Mental Health” featured a panel of high-profile journalists and professionals who peeled away the scars that mental illness leaves on all of us.

We need to accept that mental illness, “like any other illness, is a pervasive thing,” said panelist David Axelrod, the noted former journalist and presidential adviser.

Axelrod was a 19-year old college student when his father committed suicide. Axelrod didn’t talk publicly about it for 30 years. “I realized that the very reason that I didn’t talk about it was the same reason why so many people who struggle with mental illness don’t get the help that they need,” he said. “Because we attach a stigma to mental illness.”

For months, WVON-AM talk show host Perri Small has been fielding calls from angry listeners in Chicago’s black community. Like Sinclair, they are not buying that Jackson needs help.

“As a host, I had a very difficult time hearing people saying, ‘oh, I don’t believe it for a minute.” And I am saying in my head, ‘yeah I know this, and saw it for myself.’ ”

Before he disappeared, Small recalled, she saw Jackson at the WVON studios, in a manic state, clearly distressed. Small also knows, because she has suffered from depression for most of her life. After fighting the “stigma” for decades, Small got treatment two years ago. Now she’s an evangelist for understanding and treating mental illness.

Some of the cynicism about the Jackson tragedy is rooted in the congressman’s reluctance to speak openly about his condition. No wonder, given the “blame-the-victim” and “just buck up” mentality often associated with discussions about mental illness.

We need more talking, and listening. Jackson’s tragedy is a precious opportunity to propel mental illness out of the shadows of ignorance.

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