CAPS and SPA Wednesday night hosted a discussion on mental health advocacy with former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy and his wife Amy Kennedy, a Penn State alumna. Moderated by Dr. Erika Saunders, the chair of the Department of Psychiatry, and Dr. Dennis Heisman, the Senior Director and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Student Affairs, the discussion revolved around the work both of the Kennedy’s have done through The Kennedy Forum and touched on Patrick Kennedy’s public struggle with addiction as told by his 2015 New York Times best-selling book A Common Struggle.
As a child, Patrick grew up in a household in which is mother suffered from alcoholism and depression and his father, Senator Ted Kennedy, heavily self-medicated. He believes his father may have even suffered from PTSD after witnessing the deaths of both of his brothers, JFK and Bobby Kennedy, and coping with the numerous threats against his life.
“I think I had the genetic predisposition to be an alcoholic,” Patrick said. “My grandmother died at 61 and wasn’t found for a week.” He never talked about her death with his mother and noted how there tends to be a silence around these issues. Patrick admits that he has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder but explained that regardless of the type of mental illness one suffers from, the common struggle for all of them and the people they’re around is that they all suffer from a silence that keeps them from talking about their mental health.
Today, Patrick is in long-term recovery, but only came out after a very public battle with addiction that engulfed his political career. While he was running for re-election for Rhode Island state legislature, someone who was in rehab with him when he was seventeen years old sold his story to the National Enquirer. Despite the headline, “Patrick Kennedy Cocaine Addict,” showing up at every grocery store in America, Patrick still managed to win his election.
Eventually, the personal struggle with addiction that Patrick suffered from allowed him to lead the effort in Congress to pass the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. When most politicians didn’t want to touch the subject out of fear of being accused of being called an addict, Patrick was uniquely situated to take up the legislation that required coverage for mental health issues to be equal to any other illness.
After leaving Congress, Patrick and Amy Kennedy have devoted their time to The Kennedy Forum, an organization that works across the siloed mental health space and is devoted to advancing the treatment of mental health and addiction. “I ended up being a unifier because parity was the one thing everybody could agree on,” Patrick said. “The Kennedy Forum is really to showcase where we are united.”
Their goal is to get insurance providers to give evidence-based care, integrate mental health and addiction care into the rest of medicine, leverage technology to track and monitor health, and eventually move towards complete prevention.
Amy, who taught public school for fifteen years, also brings a unique perspective to The Kennedy Forum. After spending a lot of time traveling with Patrick, meeting with a lot of professionals, she realized that the history lesson wasn’t really what students needed. “That was not going to be the thing that was going to change their life,” Amy said. “There were a lot of underlying issues that were not addressed that we didn’t have a system in place to address them at school.”
Amy recounted how she had students who she taught in her first few of years who acted out or were lazy. She later realized that they had something else that was preventing their learning and hindering their abilities. Learning about to best identify people who are at risk and how to best support which interventions are the most effective for which people under various conditions is what Patrick stresses is really valuable.Unfortunately, there still isn’t a systematic approach across schools to assist these students, so many teachers have resorted to taking it upon themselves to learn from other teachers different techniques to help their students cope.
Unfortunately, there still isn’t a systematic approach across schools to assist these students, so many teachers have resorted to taking it upon themselves to learn from other teachers different techniques to help their students cope.
Patrick went on to praise to work that Penn State and CAPS are doing to track collegiate mental health. “I think there cannot be any education that doesn’t include social emotion learning, probing mechanisms, the things that we don’t learn in school, but we’re supposedly supposed to get somewhere,” Patrick said. “If you’re trying to prepare the next generation for the real world, the real world is stressful and unmanageable just like in life in general, and not allowing people to know how to cope is really like tying an arm behind their back.”
“The fact that you also are really appreciating how vital this is to the quality of life for the student body – it is so amazing that the last class gift was to fund an endowment for a counseling center,” Patrick said. “These are really incredible steps.”
The talk concluded with a brief discussion on the future of the treatment of mental health under the Trump administration. Patrick noted that the largest expansion of mental health and treatment of addiction occurred under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — more commonly known as Obamacare. “When you loosen up the market, which is to make it more competitive, you basically give the insurance industry free reign to reemploy these old medical management practices to basically give anybody who looks like they might have a mental health or addiction issues the highest rate.”
“I hope all of you who have big futures ahead of you accept that you are involved in this endeavor of growing up in a really interesting time in our country,” Patrick said. “It gives people a chance to figure out what they stand for.”