It was a personal and intimate conversation with my former Congressional colleague Patrick Kennedy.
Americans might know him best for founding the Kennedy Forum or co-authoring the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. But really, Kennedy is a practical person who looks at his own life story and uses it as a personal tool to help push forward mental health initiatives.
His first real bout with confronting his mental health publicly came in the 1980s when he was running for a seat in his state legislature. His roommate from rehab sold his story to the National Enquirer about his experience with Kennedy. The former Congressman came from a family that didn’t want to discuss these issues aloud or even recognize it.
“I felt like things I tried to keep secret were public knowledge,” Kennedy told me. “Many of our colleagues suffer from these illnesses but they do so in silence, as do many Americans because of the worry of what people will think of them if they find out.”
After arriving in Congress from the state legislature, he still struggled with addiction and substance abuse, whether it was alcohol or Ambien. He even believed the proactive, substantive policy work he was doing in the House to address these issues meant his problems with addiction were behind him.
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But that wasn’t the case.
Kennedy said he was in denial and minimizing his illness.
He now has more than a decade of sobriety after leaving Congress and changing where he lived and doing a 12-step program. He also said he understood his counterproductive and destructive thinking patterns.
“I am for a mental health literacy starting in elementary school to people understand their thought processes and the fact that they don’t have to act on their feelings as I did most of my life by self-medicating or acting in a way that is clearly self-destructive,” he told me. “Like exercise, we should practice skill building that should help us out throughout the day back away from falling into the default mode of thinking. That’s a real insight I have had only in years of recovery.”
From his experience, Kennedy urged that addiction needs to be treated as chronic care. That’s what he learned in writing his book “A Common Struggle,” and it gave him a platform to discuss what could be considered a stigmatized topic. He found the book had a greater resonance, because people have a fear of being “found out.”
“Stigma makes these illnesses worse,” he said to me. “It ends up isolating you, and it’s a common problem. They really need to be transparent. It’s ironic that I thought I was revealing these secrets and the irony is everyone around us knew these things. But in my family, I got a lot of blowback for writing this book.”
Mental health only became more realized in the pandemic. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 4 in 10 adults reported anxiety or depressive disorders. This is up from 1 in 10 in January 2019, according to KFF. Even more troubling, less than half of adults with mental health conditions received services in 2019, and nearly 90% of people with a substance use disorder did not receive treatment.
The bill Kennedy authored, the Mental Health Parity Act, became law in 2008 and requires equal coverage of treatment for mental illness and addiction, on par with that of medical and surgical care. The law, however, has been enforced with varying results, and as the National Alliance on Mental Illness points out, equal coverage does not necessarily mean good coverage: “If the health insurance plan is very limited, then mental health coverage will be similarly limited even in a state with a strong parity law or in a plan that is subject to federal parity.”
Kennedy is continuing to look for ways to increase access and care quality. He recently partnered with the Washington think tank the Bipartisan Policy Center in authoring a report that sheds light on how mental health can be better integrated into primary care, developing pathways with both existing and new value-based payment structures.
He has also co-founded Psych Hub, which has become one of the largest online mental health educational platforms in the world. Essentially, the resource platform will give providers information on how to support people enduring mental illness and its challenges. It’s a company I’ve been excited to partner with him on.
And Kennedy is thinking about the mental health issues of the future as well, noting that “process addictions” like food, sex, and technology, “I think are going to be as destructive going forward as the chemical addictions and alcohol that we’ve come to know more broadly as what an addiction is.”
One thing he hopes Americans recognize following the pandemic is that, “overall health is both, in the case of Covid, viral response but also a mental health response.” Covid-19 has repeatedly been described as an isolating and lonely illness, where the severely ill have had to recover or die alone in a hospital bed. Our mental health in life-or-death situations is closely tied to our body’s recovery response – feelings of depression and anxiety can make other symptoms worse. Treating the whole person is central to healing.
In closing out our discussion, Kennedy assured me, “It is possible to get better outcomes. It’s so obvious to say but not always apparent. We need to address access. So you have to make this affordable. You have to make it effective.” Kennedy has made it his life work to achieve just that.
Former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy joined me on A Second Opinion podcast for May 31, 2021. For more of Kennedy’s insights into how to increase awareness, reduce stigma, and improve access to mental healthcare, listen to Episode 128 of A Second Opinion.