Every third Monday in January, Americans pause to remember and celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Most people are familiar with his Civil Rights legacy that fundamentally changed the United States by ending segregation. This legacy includes the year-long Montgomery bus boycott in 1957, his support of the “Little Rock Nine” as they attempted to integrate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the March on Washington in 1963, all of which culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
During this period, as the principal leader of the Civil Rights Movement, King was jailed 29 times for peaceful civil disobedience or on trumped up charges. He spent the last 13 years of his life under constant threat of physical harm.
As familiar as most people are with this history, most people remain unaware that while King was transforming our nation he did so while battling mental illness.
From childhood, he experienced great highs and lows. A brilliant student, he skipped his freshman and senior years of high school before enrolling at Morehouse College at the age of 15. However, during this same period, following the death of his beloved grandmother, he also attempted suicide twice.
As an adult, King experienced bouts of severe depression. The stigma against individuals with mental illness, which we still battle today, was even more pronounced in the 1950s and 1960s. Concerned that people opposed to the Civil Rights Movement would use it as a way to try to discredit him, his incidents of depression remained a closely held secret among family, friends, and aides during his lifetime.
The stigma that forced King to keep secret his experience with depression still negatively affects millions of people throughout the United States and thousands of people here in St. Clair County. Although there have never been more effective mental health interventions available than there are today, many individuals with mental illness continue to deny themselves the care they need.
Citing stereotypes depicting people with mental illness as being dangerous, unpredictable, responsible for their illness, or generally incompetent, the number one reason given by a majority of individuals who did not seek out treatment was fear of friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors learning of their mental illness.
As we celebrate King, let us work to extend his Civil Rights legacy to all individuals, including those with mental illness, intellectual / developmental health issues, and substance use disorders.
Social networks, including family members, friends, and coworkers, can have a positive or negative impact on people’s decisions to pursue treatment, either enhancing feelings of stigma or encouraging individuals to seek treatment.
So, let’s all take a moment to think about the life-affirming example of King, who never let his depression stop him from positively answering what he said was life’s most persistent and urgent question: “What are you doing for others?”
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