Bipolar Diagnosis Is Not An Insanity Defense

I’ve been paging through comments left recently at Chicago news sites regarding the recent revelation that Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (Congressman, Illinois) has been diagnosed with Bipolar II and is currently experiencing a major depressive episode and is being treated at the Mayo Clinic.  He’s been on a leave-of-absence since June when he was discovered by his father, Rev. Jesse Jackson, exhausted at Rep. Jackson’s Washington, DC home.  The family took Rep. Jackson to Sierra Tucson Treatment Center in Arizona, then moved him to the Mayo clinic where he remains, undergoing treatments for his significant depression.

If the picture I just painted was about your husband or wife, your child, a relative or neighbor, teammate, fellow parishioner, acquaintance, sister-to-the-father-of-your-daughter’s-fiance’s-birth-parents, or celebrity, your reaction, most likely, would contain differing degrees of empathy based in part on your knowledge of mental illness, specifically Bipolar II.  But what if the picture I just painted was about a politician in a state known for its bipartisan political corruption.  The reality that 20% – one in five – of the last century’s governor’s have been indicted or convicted of felonies in Illinois is a damaging statistic to all Illinois politicians.  Damaging is one thing, but suspicion on a federal level and a House Ethics Committee investigation for ties to imprisoned former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich is quite another.  This federal investigation provides a significant foothold of suspicion in Rep. Jackson’s June disappearance and yesterdays news story confirming his diagnosis and treatment for major depression (one-half of the mental illness, bipolar).

The vitriol posted in comment sections of Chicago area TV stations extolling Rep. Jackson’s disclosure of mental illness and gastric by-pass as a creative and sympathetic smoke screen hoping to derail the federal investigation or, at the very least, to mitigate its voraciousness.  The assertion? That Rep. Jackson was in the middle of a hypo-manic (the other half of the mental illness, bipolar) episode which characteristically emboldens the patient to behave dangerously, generate grandiose plans well beyond his normal specter of life, and indulges in dangerously poor judgement particularly in highly sensitive or personal areas of the patients life.  If Rep. Jackson never mentioned (prior to the Blagojevich sting) that he’d like to advance his political career by winning a senate seat and then suddenly (and privately) begins the high-stakes game of buying (rather than campaigning for) a senate seat, Rep. Jackson could defend his uncharacteristic behavior as that of his manic-self (though at the time he was unaware of his mental illness), and that if his bipolar diagnosis was being properly treated (and he was compliant) he would’ve steered clear of any illegal activities.

Which is, by the way, a creative and sympathetic defense.  But our legal system does not recognize bipolar disorder as insanity, and therefore cannot be used as a defense in legal proceedings.  It could pluck on the heart strings of those on the House Ethics Committee, but any preferential treatment Rep. Jackson hopes his bipolar disorder might garner will be sanctimonious.  However, if the Committee (and subsequently Federal Prosecutors) sense blood in the water, Rep. Jackson’s recent disclosure of personal and private information will be sympathetically and respectfully noted.  And then the hounds will be unleashed and will, eventually, tree the red fox.

But what I find the most deplorable is the velocity and distribution of judgement by every-day citizens whose faith in politicians has been crushed by an unending parade of scandal, corruption, and greed.  Jesse Jackson Jr.’s job is a congressman.  Jesse Jackson Jr. also happens to be human, a husband, a brother, a son, a friend, and now part of my bipolar II world. 

It is shameful that the suspicious and the quick-to-judge deny their empathy to the mortal and vulnerable  Jesse Jackson Jr. who is suffering horribly, whose life is teetering on pharmaceutical roulette, who goes to sleep dreadfully depressed and wakes to the loathsome, disastrous, and painful reality that he must learn to live with bipolar disorder, not suffer from it.  To those casting stones, humanity and empathy aren’t yours to keep; they are given.  I pray that one day you won’t stare into the cold eyes of a stranger wholly disinterested in your immediate suffering because of a far-off suspicion of guilt.