In the wake of the Roseburg tragedy, Patrick Kennedy wrote a brilliant piece on the need for treatment for mental illness and addiction. He talks about his own personal experiences, and how he "found the light." Well worth a read. This piece appeared in USA today:
Patrick Kennedy: After Roseburg, face up to mental illness, addiction
Mental illness and substance abuse haunts every family. We must recognize that reality before we can overcome it.
Nearly 10 years ago, I crashed my car into a barrier at the U.S. Capitol at 3 in the morning. The very next day, I began the process of trying to have a conversation about what it’s like to suffer from mental illness and addiction.
Not everyone was in favor of me being open about all of this. Even my father, Sen. Ted Kennedy, didn’t really get it — at least not when it came to our own family, which shows that even the most committed, informed leaders on health care can still have old-school, unprocessed ideas about diseases of the brain.
I keep hearing that the 2016 presidential campaign is about big ideas and authenticity. Here’s a big idea that every person suffering from a mental illness or an addiction, and every American affected by those illnesses (so, everybody), knows is authentic.
Let’s start talking about every problem we have in this country in terms of how it can be addressed through improving diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness and addiction. For more problems than you think — health care, criminal justice, employment, homelessness, even the endless cycle of tragic school shootings — it is the only reasonable, evidence-based approach we have never tried.
Every candidate for president in next year’s election should have a detailed and realistic platform for how he or she would dramatically improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness and addiction. This proposal can’t just be part of an overall health plan — in reality, your health plan should be built around progressive changes in inpatient and outpatient care for mental illness and addiction care. Experts agree these illnesses provide perhaps the greatest opportunity to save lives and health care dollars if we do things differently: integrate care, be pro-active and stop pretending these aren’t chronic illnesses. One third of all hospitalizations in America involve mental illness and/or addiction, and many people who have these diagnosable medical conditions do not get the gold standard of care — either because they can’t afford it or because they are too stigmatized that the illnesses they have are chronic to stay on it.
Doing this is more than a political decision. It also means doing the personal work to challenge discrimination against these diseases, and the people who have them, at a very private level. I can attest to the challenges of living with these illnesses and how they are made worse by our fear of talking about them openly. Even after you get up the courage to admit you have one of these illnesses, you reach a whole new level of silence, laced with brain disease denial. And that silence is so damn loud.
That is partly because these illnesses are difficult to explain simply, and since they are in the brain, they can affect perception and communication. Hardly anyone, including those of us who have the illnesses, understands them as well as we would like, because they are chronic and debilitating but not always consistent. We can be in some of the same denial about them as our friends and family and work colleagues.
In my family, we almost never discussed these issues, even though my mother and both of my siblings and I were treated for substance use disorders (and my mother and I for mental illness) — and my father, who in today’s diagnostic world would probably have been seen as self-medicating against the PTSD of watching his brothers be killed, certainly would have benefited from medical care. Instead, we treated these issues like they were big secrets, even though there were entire sections in bookstores devoted to our family’s “secrets.”
If that sounds like a really specific Kennedy problem, it isn’t. It is a national struggle. In too many American families, these diseases are the worst-kept secret.
Our problems talking about these illnesses with our family and friends is a huge part of the reason our country does not have a consistent policy on their care. We all contribute to stigmatizing and discriminating against each other. Just as we have tried to work through racial and gender prejudice in this country, it is time to stop the discrimination against these brain diseases and those whose brains are affected by them.
There are still too many people whose family members don’t “believe in” mental illness or addiction, which is why, as a country, we haven’t “believed in” the treatment of these diseases. I urge you in this upcoming election to believe that change is possible.
Kennedy is a former member of the House of Representatives and the author of a new book, A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey through the Past and Future of Mental Health and Addiction, with Stephen Fried.