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'Exhaustion' Can Signify A Lot More Than 'Tired'

We may never know all the reasons why Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., has dropped out of sight, but history teaches us that if a public figure is linked to "exhaustion," the word can be code for something more problematic than simply being tired.

Take Democratic Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri — who for a brief moment was George McGovern's running mate in 1972. After the senator revealed that he had been hospitalized for "nervous exhaustion and fatigue," reporters pressed him, and he said he had also received psychiatric treatment and shock therapy for mental illness.

When Democratic Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia entered the hospital in 1979 because of "exhaustion," he was also undergoing treatment for alcohol abuse.

So when Jackson's office announced that the congressman was taking a medical leave from his duties because of "exhaustion," there was inevitable speculation about just what type of exhaustion he was experiencing.

Later in the week, Jackson's staff released a revised statement saying the congressman is suffering from a "mood disorder" but gave no specifics beyond that.

So what does that mean?

Saving Face

Calling his condition a mood disorder "doesn't really shed that much more light than the earlier explanation of 'exhaustion,' " says Amy Argetsinger, who co-writes The Washington Post's Reliable Source column with Roxanne Roberts. "And yet, it does have that extra minor degree of specificity and face-saving."

Medically, the diagnosis of mood disorder "covers quite a range of conditions — some severe, some not," says James Walkup, a clinical psychologist at Rutgers University. "Dysthymia is a kind of low-grade, chronic depression — burdensome and unpleasant, but not necessarily very disabling. Major depression can be quite severe, leaving people unable to do even simple everyday tasks."

And because the range is so wide, further questions are raised. The Washington Post, the Associated Press and others have explored the possible meanings of Jackson's diagnosis — including depression or addiction.

Regardless of the actual malady, Walkup says research shows "the public is becoming more accepting of treatment for mood disorders, but it can still be difficult for someone in the public eye."

True, that.

Trying to maintain a public persona while masking a serious private problem must be exhausting.

The Options

Come to think of it, how should public figures deal with private problems?

Rock 'n' rollers, including Kings of Leon and the Vines, have backed out of tours because of exhaustion. Granted, they don't have to appear at congressional hearings.

Demi Moore forsook the cast of the movie Lovelace because of exhaustion. Of course, she doesn't have to answer to constituents.

In any case, says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, the Jackson situation has been badly handled. "If you're in high office," he says, "you have an obligation to be frank with your constituents who are depending on you for representation.

"Just tell the truth — because it will surely come out eventually anyway. Better to tell the facts in your own way before someone less friendly does it for you. ... If you don't level with people, you will pay the piper sooner or later. The drip-drip-drip of rumors and partial disclosure can be deadly to a political career."

But, Sabato adds, "if you're honest and are having genuine health problems or addictions, your constituents and everyone of goodwill likely will rally to your support. They'll pull for you to recover. It's very human to have problems and weaknesses, and we long ago gave up the idea that elected officials shared any genes with Mother Teresa."

Asked if he can think of a public figure who handled a private problem successfully, Sabato points to the case of Nydia Velazquez. In 1991, a year before her first run for Congress, the New York Democrat attempted suicide. But during the campaign, Sabato says, "she was very frank about what happened and it didn't hurt her — since she won." Velazquez will be running for her 11th term this fall.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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