Fighting a Different Kind of Prejudice on Martin Luther King Day

Fighting a Different Kind of Prejudice on Martin Luther King Day

Every American knows and respects the greatness of Martin Luther King.

He was a minister, a humanitarian, an activist and perhaps the greatest leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Simply stated, Martin Luther King was one of our greatest and most honored leaders in fighting against prejudice in the United States. King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. It occurs on the third Monday in January every year.

Clearly, Martin Luther King was and will always be a national hero, much admired and revered. While we all know about his achievements, very few people are aware of Rev. King’s severe lifelong mental illness: Manic-Depression (aka Bipolar Disorder).

Frankly, although I have been a psychiatrist for more than 40 years with a special expertise in the area of mood disorders and serve both on the board of directors and the Scientific Advisory Board of the Depression and Bipolar Alliance, based in Chicago, I was unaware until very recently that Martin Luther King suffered from bipolar illness.

I recently read a well-researched article written by highly distinguished psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi, MD, MPH published in October titled “Martin Luther King’s manic-depressive illness: A source of his greatness and despair.”

Dr. Ghaemi is a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, where he directs the Mood Disorders Program. He has authored more than 100 scientific articles and 30 scientific book chapters, and has written or edited a number of books. He has also served as chairman of the Diagnostic Guidelines Task Force of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders (ISBD). His credentials are impeccable.

In his article, Dr. Ghaemi notes: “Dr. King repeatedly was hospitalized throughout his life for periods of “exhaustion” where he could no longer function. He would lose interest in most things, was very low in energy, couldn’t concentrate, and slept too much.” Ghaemi goes on to say: “The symptoms that he exhibited during these periods of exhaustion meet the exact definition of clinical depressive episodes.”

Ghami continues: “There is another aspect of Dr. King’s personality that hasn’t been appreciated by previous historians. Most of the time, when he wasn’t in an episode of “exhaustion,” he was a very high-energy man. He only needed about 4-5 hours of sleep and yet he rarely tired . . . He was so energetic that when he traveled, his staff in Atlanta would send one young staffer to start a trip, and then replace that person with another staffer in the middle of the trip, because Dr. King would wear out his younger travel companions . . . Besides this markedly high physical energy, Dr. King had high sexual energy with many sexual relationships with different women during his travels. . . . These features — decreased need for sleep, high energy, and high sexual libido — are manic symptoms, and they are the complete opposite of depressive states. Yet, Dr. King was usually in the former state and repeatedly would go into the latter state. In other words, he had manic symptoms alternating with depressive episodes.”

These observations and conclusions by Dr. Ghaemi may surprise or even shock many of you who are hearing about this for the first time. Perhaps, we should become less surprised by the coexistence of greatness, public service and manic depressive illness which, sadly, is still associated in the minds of many with malevolence and dysfunctionality.

Unfortunately, when many people hear the word “manic-depression” their minds quickly flash not to a nonviolent American hero who devoted his life to fighting against prejudice and evil and changed the course of American history but rather to stereotypes of evil and insanity — people who are violent and dangerous: people such as the wild-eyed James Holmes, the insane neuroscience student with flaming dyed red hair who dressed as the Joker and opened fire on hundreds of innocent people at a Batman film premiere in Aurora, Colo., on July 20, 2012.

Despite many attempts at public education, prejudices and stereotypes are not easy to change. Few are aware that manic-depression can and does occur in the lives of remarkable individuals who have contributed greatly to the welfare of others. The list is vast but includes among thousands of others: Florence Nightingale, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Sir Isaac Newton and now the Rev. Martin Luther King.

Although the public is gradually becoming more educated about Bipolar Disorder, prejudice, fear and misconceptions still exist and the result is that many individuals are reluctant to admit they have this condition. They fear that people will discriminate against them. They may even believe that if they seek treatment they are weak-willed, defective, or even “crazy.” Sadly, many people who live with these incorrect beliefs would rather suffer than seek treatment. The shame and stigma felt by people who suffer with Bipolar Disorder is just as real as any other prejudice.

Perhaps it is fitting to end this piece with a famous quote from the Rev. King: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Manic depressive illness — particularly the depressive component, which can last for months or even years if untreated — is internal and not visible like the color of one’s skin. The dream of everyone who suffers or loves someone with bipolar disorder (an illness which affects more than 12 million Americans) is that they be judged not by their diagnosis but by their spiritual essence and their character.

Dr. John S. Tamerin lives and practices psychiatry in Greenwich. He is a clinical associate professor of Psychiatry at the Cornell/ Weill School of Medicine.