ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Kennedy, Jackson and Bipolar

By Jack Bragen
Friday August 31, 2012 - 10:28:00 AM

Patrick Kennedy and Jesse Jackson Jr. are two people with bipolar illness who were or are [respectively] members of Congress. It doesn't take a genius to realize that these examples of people who have bipolar are a different breed than those who get a weapon and do a random shooting. 

An extremely violent incident gets headline press coverage and makes people erroneously believe that violence is an essential trait of mental illness. The television stations are after ratings and will indulge in sensationalism to keep fascinated viewers watching, to keep selling advertisements. 

Kennedy and Jackson are two examples of very high functioning people who have a mental illness. Many people with mental illness struggle with basic career issues. A person must manage their symptoms and their emotions (many of which are very uncomfortable) and must at the same time be able to focus on their work. They must also deal with the slowness that is sometimes induced by being medicated. If Jesse Jackson Jr. feels that it is too much, for the time being, to deal with being a congressman, there ought to be no shame in that. However, if Jackson believes he can still do the job, I think we ought to give him a chance. Worse things have happened to our leadership than having one member of congress with bipolar. It is not as if by Jackson staying in congress that we would have a national disaster as a result. Additionally, Jackson could represent the concerns of persons with mental illness, some of whom are constituents. 

In a CNN interview, Patrick Kennedy brought up many of the same points that I have made in the past, in this column. Kennedy said that persons with mental illness are stigmatized-and that this is improper since mental illnesses are actually medical conditions. Kennedy brought up the comparison with cancer, mentioning that a cancer patient is treated very differently and better than someone with bipolar even though these are actually both medical conditions-he said this is because bipolar is something you can't see, and because it affects behavior. Patrick Kennedy apparently was one of the authors of the Mental Health Parity Act, which prevents HMO's from discriminating against persons with mental illness. 

I hope that the public, when they think of people with mental illnesses, will keep Patrick Kennedy and Jesse Jackson Jr. in mind, and would not automatically associate a mentally ill person as a "crazy" and dangerous person. There are plenty of persons with mental illnesses who simply live a "normal" existence and who are contributing members of society. You don't hear about them because most find it necessary not to reveal that they have this condition, due to people's ignorant prejudice against us and the resultant disregard. 

I congratulate the producers at CNN for giving airtime to "our side" of the mental illness issue communicated by Patrick Kennedy.