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Patrick J. Kennedy speaks about mental illness, his struggles, and legislation

by Laura Freeman | Reporter Published: July 27, 2016 4:15 PM
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Akron -- Patrick J. Kennedy, former Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Rhode Island, shared his views on mental health July 21 before more than 500 guests during the Akron Roundtable at the John S. Knight Center in Akron.

The Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation sponsored the luncheon event.

"The Foundation views Patrick as the leading national voice for improving the lives of the mentally ill and substance addicted, and has joined him in a nonpartisan effort to improve mental health care throughout our region and beyond," said Rick Keller, MCMF president. "We can and must treat people with mental illness before they are just placed in jails and prisons... Treatment works, people recover and we all benefit."

The Learned Owl sold copies of Kennedy's book sold, "A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction," sold at the event.

Kennedy was a chief sponsor of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, a bill requiring most health care plans to cover the treatment of mental illness in a similar way as physical illnesses.

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"That's a bill that says something really revolutionary," Kennedy said. "It says that the brain is part of the body. It took years to get any kind of agreement in Congress. Finally, we got bipartisan support because it was recognized that these illnesses don't just affect Democrats. They affect Republicans, too."

In 2008, Kennedy shared publicly he has bipolar disorder and is a recovering alcoholic. He is co-founder of One Mind for Research to increase brain disorder research.

Mental illness affects one in four people and 20 million Americans have a substance abuse problem. Eight million people think seriously about suicide, he said.

"What binds these statistics together? A need to understand the underlying science of the brain, how it works, how it becomes compromised, and what we can do to achieve brain health," Kennedy said.

Ohio is becoming a model for the nation on how to integrate mental health into everything -- health care, education, prisons and veteran care, he said. He praised Northeast Ohio Medical University for its research in brain disease and the philanthropy of the Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation toward mental health.

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Kennedy said his name was on the parity bill because not many Congressmen wanted "Mental Health and Addiction" following their name.

"I got the good fortune to be the first name on the bill because I had already been in rehab by the age of 17," he said.

Kennedy said he didn't want anyone to know he was getting mental health care and was terrified that the people who loved him most would reject him.

"I thought they would think I was a loser," Kennedy said. "I was elected and [then] public about these issues to some extent. It didn't mean my illness went away. I would have to go back to inpatient treatment."

Regular health care didn't treat addiction as a chronic illness like asthma, he said. His doctor didn't check on his addiction on a regular basis.

"I didn't want be in the section for addiction," Kennedy said. "I was supposed to be a sponsor of mental health parity, not a consumer. It shows you I'm trying to lead the effort and keep it a secret while I'm leading. It shows the layer of denial when you have these diseases."

Denial is a common struggle, Kennedy said. After crashing his car into the Capitol police barrier in 2006, he was asked to resign, but talked to his constituents to see what they thought. He thanked them for the get well cards, but none of them had sent any.

"It caught them off guard," he said. "With these illnesses, you don't treat them like other illness. You don't reach out to them. You keep it quiet."

In his book "The Common Struggle," the common struggle is the silence that accompanies these addiction and mental illnesses.

Although his family was well-known and the world knew about their problems, no one in the family talked about it. His book broke the silence for the Kennedy family.

"What will our family think of us," Kennedy said. "It's the big elephant in the room."

Kennedy said he saw too much suffering in his family to be silent.

"What ails America is silence," he said. "I don't want my children to have any shame to ask for help or difficulty in getting that help."

Society in general doesn't understand addiction and mental illness, that it's behavioral, Kennedy said.

"When your brain is hijacked by addiction or mental illness, your ability to make sound decisions is compromised," Kennedy said. "You don't know how ill you are and that's to the frustration of everyone around you who can't believe you don't get it."

There is no way to treat a patient for any illness without treating depression, anxiety, addiction and serious mental illness, he said.

"We need to identify people before their first incident [of mental illness]," Kennedy said.

But eight years after the bill was passed by Congress, the president needs to issue the final rules guiding the implementing of the 2008 bill to "require insurance companies disclose how they do medical management mental practices on people with mental illnesses and addiction."

Then the law will require that medical facilities and doctors must provide treatment for mental health.

Local officials who attended included Hudson Council member Casey Weinstein, Tallmadge Mayor David Kline, Tallmadge city staff and Tallmadge School Board members.

"It was an honor to attend today's event and support the great work that the Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation does toward improving mental health for Ohioans," Weinstein said. "Uniting with a national voice like Patrick Kennedy will only elevate awareness for this important cause."

Email: lfreeman@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9434

Twitter: @LauraFreeman_RP

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