By Claire Harlin
When former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy was charged with driving while intoxicated on Capitol Hill in 2006, he said he was told not to talk about it.
“But I talked about it wherever I went, and my constituents told me they were finally glad to talk about these issues,” said Kennedy, who was first elected to Congress at 21, the youngest House Representative in history. “I still ran for Congress and got re-elected by the largest plurality in any election I’ve run in so far — 70 percent.”
Kennedy, a nephew to the late President John F. Kennedy, ended his 15-year Congressional career in 2011 to dedicate his life to spreading awareness about mental health in order to end the stigma and advocate for mental health insurance payouts. He made a visit to the Del Mar Hilton on May 22 to speak at an International Bipolar Foundation event and present a group of local Girl Scouts with their Mental Health Awareness Patches, which they earned by doing an extensive amount of outreach and research on mental health stigma. (The International Bipolar Foundation was founded by RSF resident Muffy Walker, who is the organization’s board president.)
“The way we stop stigma is to start with the young, impressionable minds before they get fixated that people should feel ashamed of their illness,” Kennedy said. “They are the most important audience.”
Kennedy has long been a pioneer for mental health — he’s responsible for introducing legislation to place mental illness under the umbrella of health insurance — and he has been affected by mental health issues in both his own life and indirectly through the lives of his family members and fellow colleagues in Congress. Kennedy mentioned that just last week his cousin, Mary Richardson Kennedy, committed suicide, and he spoke about how several fellow members of Congress confided in him when he returned to Capitol Hill after his alcohol addiction recovery.
“They’d tell me how their spouse wanted to commit suicide, how their daughter had an eating disorder, how they themselves battled addiction,” said Kennedy. “They told me all this in confidence.”
But it was all those same politicians, Kennedy said, who voted against legislation supporting mental health reform.
“They said, ‘Patrick, I come from a different part of the country than you. I’m in the buckle of the Bible belt, and if anyone in my district thinks someone in my family has a mental illness, I’m not going to get re-elected like you get re-elected,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said even though the Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 is on the books, still too many people are being denied insurance reimbursement because illnesses of the brain are often considered elective, like cosmetic surgery. The solution, he said, lies in combating stigma to have better overall acceptance and implementation of the law.
He compared the issue to America’s mid-century civil rights movement.
“The notion that in 2012 we still allow people to be sent to the colored water fountain is familiar to those in the mental health movement,” Kennedy said. “Mental health is treated differently than health care, when mental health care needs to be part of everyday screening just like any physical illness.”
For more information on the Bipolar Foundation, visit www.internationalbipolarfoundation.org.