Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, left, meets with U.S....

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, left, meets with U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Jackson is in a "deep" depression and has "a lot of work" ahead of him on the road to recovery, Kennedy said. (Aug. 16, 2012) Credit: AP

We need to sympathize with Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) and come to a better awareness of mental illness.

A recent picture of a grim, almost gaunt Jackson at the Mayo Clinic where he is being treated for Bipolar II Disorder was the first time the public has gotten a glimpse of the congressman since his mysterious disappearance from Washington in late May.

Also in the photo was Patrick Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman from Rhode Island, who said that Jackson was in a deep depression that would require more treatment.

According to the Mayo Clinic, Bipolar II Disorder is a mental illness characterized by mood swings, though these swings are not as great as in Bipolar I Disorder. These afflictions also are known as manic depression.

Kennedy, who chose not to run for Congress again in 2010 after his own bout with bipolar disorder was made public, may be able to connect with Jackson in a way that few other people can because of the obvious similarities between the two men.

Both were in the national spotlight as youths because of the prestige of their families.

Jackson is the son of the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., who ran for president twice and played a famous role before that in the civil rights movement.

Kennedy is the son of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and nephew of JFK and Bobby Kennedy, who were martyred by assassins.

Patrick Kennedy was re-elected in Rhode Island despite the fact his constituents were aware of his bipolar disease, as well as his addictions.

Jackson is still favored to win a 10th term in Congress in November. His constituents in Chicago seem to be remaining loyal to him and wishing him the best. But his illness -- and the general public's unease with it -- may dim any aspirations he might once have had for higher office.

Now that he is suffering, he deserves our support and understanding. But I wish he and his staff and his family had been more forthright from the start about his illness. Instead, they were vague and secretive, which signaled they were aware of the still-powerful stigma of mental illness.

We need to put that stigma behind us.

Mental illness is something that affects most of us eventually -- either directly or through our families, friends and co-workers. Bipolar disease itself afflicts about 2 million Americans.

Jackson is fortunate in one way. As a member of Congress, he has decent insurance, which allows him to get the treatment he needs. The problem is most Americans, including the majority of those who have insurance, would not have the wherewithal to pay for good mental health care. Most insurance plans don't adequately cover mental illnesses. We need to change this.

When he is stronger, I hope that Jackson will help all of us understand and effectively deal with the problem of mental illness.

Writer Starita Smith teaches sociology at the University of North Texas. She was an award-winning journalist at the Gary Post-Tribune, the Columbus Dispatch and the Austin American-Statesman. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.Distributed by MCT Information Services.