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Coming out of the closet on mental health

By Julianne Malveaux
NNPA

Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., has been away from Congress on medical leave for so long that his colleagues have been clamoring to know what’s wrong, and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported that the congressman was receiving treatment for addiction. The truth, according the Rep. Jackson’s staff, is that the congressman is being treated in a residential facility for exhaustion and mood disorders.

Why not say that in the first place?

Because divulging one’s mental health status is often the kiss of death in politics and public life. It may be okay in Hollywood to speak of exhaustion, mood swings and other mental health issues. In that world, treatment is often followed by a late night talk show interview and a career revival. In contrast, any politician who has come out of the closet about his or her mental health gets anything but a hard time.

Sen. Thomas Eagleton, D-Mo., who had been elected to local, state, and national office for more than a decade, briefly joined the McGovern presidential ticket in 1972. When his medical records were leaked, Eagleton was pushed from the Democratic ticket because he had long-standing mental health problems.

Eagleton checked into hospitals three times for physical and nervous exhaustion, was known to have suffered from depression and reportedly received electroconvulsive therapy twice. While his mental health history was not part of the public record, his hospitalizations led to speculation that he had a drinking problem. Still, he was so effective as a campaigner and politician that he unseated an incumbent Democrat in his race for the United States Senate.

When George McGovern learned that Eagleton had taken the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine, and his doctors had spoken of his “manic depression,” McGovern initially supported Eagleton. However, when McGovern learned that Eagleton’s depression could return, he asked Eagleton to withdraw from the ticket and he complied.

Even though 77 percent of the American people said Eagleton’s medical record would not affect their vote, Republican opposition was geared up to attack McGovern because of Eagleton’s mental health status, and the press showed their ignorance by rather cavalierly referring to Eagleton’s “shock therapy.” Since men are far less likely to seek treatment for mental health issues than women are, Eagleton showed amazing self-awareness to seek help. He perhaps did not reveal more, and sooner, because he understood the public perceptions, and thus the negative consequences of being open about mental health.

Fast-forward 40 years to Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. Many would say we’ve come a long way on mental health awareness, but others would argue the point. Many health plans do not even bother to cover mental health, and if they do, it is covered for a limited number of sessions. Having mental health problems is still enough of a stigma for some professionals to pay for mental health out of their pocket rather than have their mental health treatment be a matter of record. Comedians and others joke that when someone appears to behave erratically (or in some cases, extremely mindfully), they must be “off their meds.” The stigma remains, and it is stronger in the African American community than the majority community.

Tell an African American friend or colleague about feeling down for more than a week or so (two weeks of down moods is one sign of depression), and he or she will tell you to pray on it. “God will help you through it,” they will say. But the Lord helps those who help themselves, and sometimes the help needed won’t be found on your knees. Or, the response to manic episodes is “Child, you so crazy,” as if that is a badge of honor, not a sign that help is needed. Every indicator we have of mental health utilization suggests African Americans are less likely to seek help than their white counterparts and while some of it may have to do with cost, some of it has to do with stigma.

As widely as postpartum depression is known and discussed, African American women are half as likely to seek help as white women. Study after study reports the underutilization of mental health services among African Americans.

Women are far more likely to be diagnosed with mood disorders than men are, which puts another burden on men. Indeed, African American men with mood disorders are more likely to rely on informal support systems, or to forego treatment than they are to seek help. Thus, a 2011 study from the School of Social Work at Michigan State University concludes that there is an unmet need for mental health services among African American men.

It is as unfortunate that Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. has been hospitalized for mood disorders as it would be if he were hospitalized for another illness. The fact that he has shared his mental health status may allow Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity, to come out of the closet about mental health.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is president emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.

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