When we think of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the name resonates with the fight for freedom from segregation and civil rights justice for people of all racial backgrounds and classes. Often overlooked and rarely the focus of media attention was his quiet fight against mental illness.
It has been speculated, though he was never officially diagnosed, that he suffered from depression—and according to a Time Magazine profile on his life, twice attempted suicide in his youth. Later in life, just prior to his assignation it is reported that several members of his staff attempted to secure a psychiatric intervention for him. Theorizing about his mental health is not meant to be a critique or an attempt to discredit the awesome and inspiring actions of Dr. King, but rather to quell the incessant myth that those who suffer with mental illness are incapable of historic accomplishments.
Dr. King rarely spoke publicly regarding mental health, but when he did, like everything else he said, his words continue to resonate and create a lasting impact to this day. Yet, at firsthand, we don’t tend to associate his legacy with the fight against mental health stigmas, and towards an equalized and proactive mental health system.
But throughout his adulthood, Dr. King’s social and political successes ran parallel with his mental illness battle, yet the latter was only known by close friends and family members. Sadly, King experienced the same mental health stigmas currently faced by countless people in the United States. He feared his political and social justice accomplishments would be overshadowed or discredited if news of his struggle with mental health came to light. Despite these personal and professional obstacles, Rev. King never altered his convictions, or faltered from his objectives. If anything, he believed that his ‘maladjustment’, a term he used in a keynote speech for the American Psychological Association in 1967, strengthened his resolve to continue the fight for equality.
His struggle with mental illness was internalized, something those suffering from mental illness in the United States still experience on a daily basis.
The stigma and stereotype are still so persistent and tenacious that the open and honest discussion of mental illness remains taboo in some communities of color; who still face marginalization, bigotry and discrimination in our country. Stereotypes depicting people with mental illness as being dangerous, unpredictable, dramatic, overly sensitive, or generally incapable bullies many into silence. This fear of alienation from the community combined with a historically rational distrust of medical institutions and a disparaging lack of resources, results in communities that are less likely to seek needed care and are more likely to receive substandard care when treated.
Thankfully, this is slowly shifting as more and more influential figures in the community are speaking out about their own personal experiences with mental illness and disbanding the correlation between weakness, failure and mental illness. The uprising of social media has also been an instrumental tool in opening channels of communication between those affected by mental illness, creating a community of its own with limitless outreach.
Therefore, this January as we honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—one of our nation’s most accomplished in terms of social rights and justice—let us remember that Rev. King intended to create a legacy of acceptance and open-mindedness to all individuals. He understood, perhaps better than most, that the ‘maladjusted’ have a unique role to play in the fight for freedom (which includes freedom from stigma and stereotype) and their participation and perspective deserve to be heard and validated. Lastly, let us commemorate Rev. King by affirming the fact that mental illness and accomplishment are not mutually exclusive.