October 15, 2021


Jesse Jackson, Jr is in the headlines again for pleading guilty of embezzling $750,000  from campaign funds. I’ve heard this story so many times before; of  lives blown apart by Bipolar Disorder. I see it over and over again in my practice. All the talented, charismatic, beloved people whose lives careen out of control. Jackson was a gifted politician with a bright future in politics. Politics is not like show business where redemption is not too hard to attain. Robert Downey, Jr., Brittany Spears, Carrie Fisher all had famous implosions but in a creative field they were able to return to their careers. Jesse Jackson, Jr. will never again hold elective office.


There have been many books written about the association of Bipolar Disorder and world leaders. Mania, the high side of Bipolar Disorder gives those who suffer from it enormous energy and drive. At the extreme end of it the disorganization is too severe to function  but Bipolar Disorder, like all illnesses, has a range of degree and many people function well for long periods in the middle of it. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were two world leaders who suffered from severe depression and perhaps Bipolar Disorder. Even today, Bipolar can be very difficult to diagnose so it is highly uncertain about specific diagnosis in historical figures but the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder seems likely to me. Charisma, supreme self-confidence (otherwise known as grandiosity) come with the condition and are enormous assets in political work. Important and memorable leaders have these qualities. FDR and JFK with their hyper-sexuality and tremendous charm are two other likely candidates for having Bipolar Disorder.

When I look at some of the recent sex scandals among United States politicians-Anthony Wiener, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford the lack of self control, the hubris of thinking it would not harm their career, the public nature of the behavior I am deeply suspicious of Bipolar Disorder which allows emotion and self confidence to over-rule judgement and ambition.

What’s the connection to Jesse Jackson, Jr? He has been very publicly diagnosed with a Bipolar Disorder. He had a very promising career ahead of him which has been permanently destroyed by the loss of judgement and behavior which are very typical in Bipolar Disorder. Embezzling $750,000? This is just an extreme and very public version of the spending sprees and financial impulsivity that are all too common in people with Bipolar Disorder.


One of the great tragedies in Bipolar Disorder is that the illness itself strips its sufferers from the insight they need to keep out of control behaviors in check. Even people who are actively treated and under the supervision of psychologists and psychiatrists can experience an exacerbation of symptoms. This is no different from heart disease, diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis or other chronic conditions that have fluctuating courses. Patients who scrupulously follow their treatment team’s recommendations for medicine, diet and lifestyle can still experience problems. For the person with Bipolar Disorder, if the condition becomes worse (and flare ups are inevitable for many) thinking deteriorates.

Bipolar Disorder is a brain disease and when the brain starts to work abnormally, thinking and judgement can rapidly deteriorate. Jesse Jackson can think, it’s my money for my campaign, why can’t I spend it as I wish. Mark Sanford can think, no one will really notice if I leave the country for a while without letting anyone on my staff know how to get in touch with me. We look at these famous and successful figures and think, “he’s so smart, how could he do this?” or “she’s so successful, why would she behave in such a dangerous way?” It’s because Bipolar Disorder hijacks the brain, our thinking, and our reasoning and leads us to believe that what is outside of our immediate impulses doesn’t really matter.


In the same way, people who are not famous can torpedo their own lives when Bipolar Disorder swings out of control. Marriages and families can be devastated, financial savings dissipated, careers wrecked.  People enjoy the high energy, creativity and boldness of their Bipolar Disorder but it’s a disorder which needs to be carefully and regularly supervised and controlled to keep the price of it from causing irrevocable damage.

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