National Press Club

Former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy calls for mental health parity

November 6, 2015 | By Julia Haskins | juliaannehaskins@gmail.com

Former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, D-Rhode Island, speaks about his new book A Common Struggle at a National Press Club Newsmaker of Nov. 5, 2015.

Former Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, D-Rhode Island, speaks about his new book A Common Struggle at a National Press Club Newsmaker of Nov. 5, 2015.

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

Former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy called for action to treat addiction and mental illness as legitimate diseases at a National Press Club Newsmakers event Nov. 5 in the Fourth Estate Restaurant.

“We’re living in a watershed time for the movement to ensure that mental illness and addiction are covered as the diseases they are ... and are no longer discriminated against because of age-old prejudices based on unfounded inaccuracies,” Kennedy said.

The stigma surrounding such illnesses is an overarching theme in his new book, A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction.

Kennedy -- a Democrat who represented Rhode Island for 16 years -- openly discussed his own struggles with addiction and mental illness. He urged those whose lives have also been impacted by mental health issues to be outspoken about what he called an “epidemic” in the U.S.

“The most important thing for us to do to really break the silence on a national level and move public policy forward is to break the silence in our own lives and our families’ lives,” he said.

Longstanding prejudices have kept the conversation about addiction and mental-health issues wrapped in shame, when they warrant the same compassion and treatment deserving of any physical illness, Kennedy said. The equality of mental and physical illness is at the heart of the Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act of 2008, which he sponsored.

Kennedy is also behind One Mind, an initiative that aims to bolster research on mental illness and brain injury, and the Kennedy Forum, which seeks to improve treatment of addiction and mental illness in the health-care system. He will be working to bring these issues to the forefront of the 2016 presidential election through the NOW Campaign.

The insurance industry and lawmakers have not done enough to ensure that people suffering from mental illness can access appropriate resources, Kennedy said. He also criticized the Obama administration for what he believes has been a tepid response to the country’s mental-health crisis.

“The president has sat on his hands because the insurance industry has brought the Affordable Care Act into being,” Kennedy said. “What we really need from the Obama administration is a bold State of the Union where the president lays out for the American people that this is a crisis for public health … and that he intends to insure that everybody gets the health care that they need.”

While Kennedy stressed that the federal government must invest in the treatment of mental health, he also underscored the need for people to reconsider how they view addiction, mental illness and other brain diseases.

“The biggest challenge we have is ... our own inability to recognize that no one gets up in the morning and tries to alienate their friends and family [or] tries to put themselves in a place where they’re disregarded, derided and dismissed,” Kennedy said. “Like the civil-rights movement, it has to begin inside all of us, and when it does I think you’re going to see an absolute change, which could have enormous impact in public policy.”