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Taking a page from his uncle JFK, Patrick Kennedy writes about profiles in mental health courage

Patrick Kennedy
Courtesy Patrick Kennedy

Kennedy talks about how the LGBTQ+ community is an inspiration for mobilizing as we mark Mental Health Awareness Month.

When Patrick Kennedy popped up on my computer screen for our scheduled call to talk about his new book, Profiles in Mental Health Courage, and his zealous advocacy on mental health, I was prepared to give him a quick rundown of my own mental health story. But he began to speak before I did.

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“I just want to tell you that I read your articles on your own personal struggles, and I wanted to commend you on your bravery in speaking out and being so honest. I know how difficult that is,” he offered.

Why that floored me is because as those of us who have struggled know, it is so difficult to talk about those experiences. Anyone who is, or has, suffered from severe depression, and grappled with suicide attempts, knows telling the story can be at once humiliating and cathartic. What Kennedy wittingly or unwittingly did was to relieve me of the burden of having to speak about it again.

But Kennedy knows all too well what it means to battle a mental illness. Kennedy has battled substance use addiction issues and has been treated for depression. For the over 30 years, he’s been open and honest about his struggles and arguably was one of the first public figures to come forward. His new book continues his advocacy and takes a page from his uncle, President John F. Kennedy’s famous World War II book, Profiles in Courage about military heroes.

"It seemed as though my efforts to conceal certain aspects of my life were futile, as if everyone knew since they were leaked to the media. My family had mental health issues but didn’t talk about them,” Kennedy said.

He added that he knew that some of his peers also grapple with similar challenges. “They endure silently. This silence echoed across America during those days and still does to some degree, and it’s driven by the fear of judgment should those struggles be exposed."

Besides being President Kennedy’s nephew, he is the son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who I wrote about last year, and who is widely considered one of the greatest senators in American history. He championed marginalized communities and the underserved, with his fingerprints on historic civil rights, health care, labor, HIV/AIDS, mental health, and a litany of other landmark laws.

To be sure, Patrick Kennedy had tough shoes to fill when he first entered politics, running for and winning a seat in the Rhode Island state legislature when he was a student at Providence College, in 1990, and then went on to represent the state’s first congressional district in Congress for 16 years.

During his years in Congress, Kennedy championed the fight against discrimination targeting mental illness, addiction, and other brain disorders. He gained prominence as the primary advocate behind the groundbreaking Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. This landmark legislation extended mental health care access to millions of Americans who had previously been denied it.

The Parity Law also mandates insurance companies to treat brain-related illnesses, like clinical depression and opioid addiction, with the same level of coverage as physical ailments. In addition to spearheading the Parity Law, Kennedy authored, and co-sponsored, numerous bills aimed at advancing the understanding and treatment of neurological and psychiatric conditions, exemplified by the Alzheimer’s Treatment and Caregiver Support Act.

He decided not to run for re-election 2010, to devote his efforts, full-time, to helping advance the cause of mental illness.

“From my career in Congress, I accumulated a large rolodex, and had 20 years of influence on mental health legislation,” he explained. “And I have the Kennedy name, which I recognize is an advantage. Plus, this issue is personal to me too, I can understand the stories of struggle of loneliness of feeling like I’m the only one. I understand those things. And the stigma and pain that goes along with it.”

“In reality, we lack a comprehensive understanding of what it truly means to navigate through these messy, complex illnesses,” Kennedy told me. “Public narratives tend to be sanitized, glossing over those messy realities that so many individuals grapple with and face every day, oftentimes alone. Our society desires these neat, linear descriptions, but the truth is, as you well know, mental health issues are far more intricate.”

Kennedy said that while we are inundated with alarming statistics, like the rising rates of suicide and overdose, we often fail to recognize the human impact behind these numbers.

“What does it mean for individuals trying to access insurance coverage or evidence-based treatment? How do they navigate personal relationships, which are deeply intertwined with their illness experiences? How can they understand that they are not alone in these situations? And how does their illness affect those around them?” he asked.

That’s what Kennedy’s book set out to do, not only to speak to those who have endured grueling struggles, but also those who were the support network around the afflicted.

“These perspectives are so important,” Kennedy pointed out. “I’m sure you are aware of the fact too that we only hear from the single, first-person narrative. You can’t quantify the importance of those stories. They’re invaluable, and so too are the stories of those who were able to provide help.”

By interviewing therapists, family members, and friends, Kennedy gained a more nuanced understanding of the challenges individuals truly face.

“It's through these diverse perspectives that we can paint a more realistic picture of their experiences, one that transcends the tidy narratives we often prefer to hear. And why is that important? Because so many people that I’ve heard from over the years, who know someone with mental illness, ask, ‘What can I do to help?’ And this book provides examples of not only fighting the illness, but also aiding in that help.”

I told Kennedy about what happened to me, and how when I was suffering in silence at the office, or among friends, I was treated almost like a pariah. I thought at the time that people didn’t care about how I was losing weight, becoming withdrawn, and how my voice had changed. I was crumbling and kept at arm's length. I now realize that people in my life weren't afraid, they just didn’t know how to respond and help.

“Then you know how important it is for people to come forward, tell their stories, as raw as they can be, and to not hold back,” he said. “The more light we can shine on all aspects of mental health, the more we can help in the way of help and treatment options.”

We also discussed the need for not only more awareness, but more funding for programs to support and expand those treatment options. Kennedy pointed out using the LGBTQ+ community as an example to further the cause.

“I think what the queer community did the way it went after funding for HIV/AIDS during the dark days of the epidemic is a model for how to mobilize our own efforts,” he cited. “The community is such a great example about how to win on vitally important issues, like they did for abolishing DADT (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) and marriage equality. These examples are models for us to use, and a source of inspiration.”

Kennedy also recognized that while there’s been success, stigma still exists.

“It’s terrible, but there’s stigma in this country around HIV to this day, and racism, and obviously with mental health and suicide. It’s a horrible reality, but stigmatization will probably always exist to some degree.”

For that to change, Kennedy said that part of correcting course might be to approach mental health issues with a new way of thinking.

“We have to change the pattern and the way we think on this issue. We can’t use the same side of the brain the same way we’ve been doing. We have to approach getting funding, getting help, gaining awareness in different ways. The generation that is coming up is going to be able to help us do it in different ways. We’re never going to get all that we need, but we need to harness all the experiences, and leverage all that in myriad ways to advance these issues.”

If you or someone you know needs mental health resources and support, please call, text, or chat with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or visit988lifeline.org for 24/7 access to free and confidential services. Trans Lifeline, designed for transgender or gender-nonconforming people, can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The lifeline also provides resources to help with other crises, such as domestic violence situations. The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678.


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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.