Patrick Kennedy Talks to The Fix About Addiction, Stigma, and Evidence-Based Treatment

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Patrick Kennedy Talks to The Fix About Addiction, Stigma, and Evidence-Based Treatment

By Brian Whitney 10/18/16

"We have to address how discrimination prevents people from getting care. We have to support evidence-based approaches to treatment."

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Patrick Kennedy
Kennedy is one of the nations leading advocates in changing the way people talk about mental illness and addiction. via Facebook

Patrick Kennedy is a pretty brave guy. As a member of what is arguably America’s most famous family, and being the son of family patriarch Ted Kennedy, having some fame is to be expected, as is having some ambition. Patrick had both. He was still in his 30s when first elected to Congress and was well on his way to having a very successful political career when he crashed his automobile into a barricade on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., at 2:45 a.m. He later pled guilty to driving under the influence of prescription drugs, and admitted an addiction to OxyContin. He entered rehab as part of a plea agreement in 2006, and entered rehab again in 2009.

This is the time when most people in his situation would just disappear. Public shamings tend to do that to people, especially when the topics are addiction and mental illness, both of which Kennedy admitted to having. But he took the opposite route. Instead of hiding, Kennedy has chosen to become one of the nation's leading advocates in an effort to change the way people talk about mental illness and addiction.

He recently talked to The Fix about some of his many endeavors—professional and personal—to help those who are in his situation but lack his voice.

Many people feel a lot of shame around their mental health and substance use issues. Your work, and how you are so open about your life, is obviously very inspirational to many of them. How did you first decide to start speaking out about your own issues?

The first time that I came out publicly with my mental illness was in 2000, during a presidential campaign event, when I was chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It was unplanned. I just got caught up in the moment. But the truth really does set you free.

When people share their stories, they help create a safe and welcoming space that will make it more likely that our brothers and sisters who are struggling with a mental health condition like bipolar disorder or a substance use disorder like alcoholism will step forward and get the treatment they need. We all have a responsibility to create a better environment.   

Mental health conditions are chronic diseases, for the most part. You wouldn't feel shame in seeking treatment for diabetes or cancer. So you shouldn't feel ashamed for seeking treatment for depression, anxiety or anything else. And just like those other diseases, people living with a mental health condition or substance use disorder can manage their disease and live full, happy, meaningful lives—I'm living proof of that.

Your book A Common Struggle is now out in paperback. How has your family reacted to you being so open about your and your family’s issues around substance abuse and mental health? Has it changed over time?

I think my family’s experience has been indicative of the common struggle that many of us face. Sometimes family members don’t want to engage with these issues in the same way that we do. I hope that by being open about my recovery, I am encouraging other families to speak out about their experiences. The more people learn that someone at their church is in recovery for opioid addiction or another mom at day care takes medication to control her OCD, the more we will realize that “everyone has something.” We have to break down the “othering” that has gone on too long with brain diseases.

Can you tell me about the rally that you led during the Democratic National Convention?

At the Like-Minded Rally at the DNC in July, The Kennedy Forum and The Scattergood Foundation released a 12-point call to action, “The National Behavioral Health Platform: A Nonpartisan Approach to Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders.” This is a framework for comprehensively reforming the way mental health and addiction are viewed, diagnosed and treated in this country. We have to address how discrimination prevents people from getting care. We have to support evidence-based approaches to treatment. One in five adults—some 44 million Americans—experience mental illness in a given year. Approximately 21.5 million people aged 12 or older struggle with a substance use disorder each year. These are voting issues, and ones that cut across ideological lines.  

This has been the most polarizing presidential election in recent history. What role do mental health and addiction issues play in the 2016 presidential election?

I am doing everything in my power to elect Hillary Clinton as the next president of the United States. She has put forth the most comprehensive plan ever to reform our behavioral health care system by putting the treatment of mental health on par with that of physical health. As the father of four children, I was moved to see that her plan promises that “the next generation must grow up knowing that mental health is a key component of overall health and there is no shame, stigma, or barriers to seeking out care.” When it comes to the daunting challenges around preventing, diagnosing, treating, and researching brain diseases, Hillary just gets it.  

My father and I worked with then-Senator Clinton to pass the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. The Parity Law requires insurers to treat illnesses of the brain, like depression and opioid addiction, the same as diseases of the body, like cancer and heart disease. This law holds tremendous promise, but it is not being fully enforced. I believe that President Clinton will enforce the law and move our nation closer to the goal of providing mental health care to everyone who needs it. 

Could you tell me a bit about The Kennedy Forum? I read on your website that it "seeks to set a new standard for the future of health care in the United States." What do you mean by that?

The Kennedy Forum drives the national dialogue about transforming the mental health system in America. The Forum, launched around the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s signing of the landmark Community Mental Health Act, aims to revolutionize the way mental health care is delivered in our country. We brought together the best minds in the field to develop a strategic plan for moving the nation forward and to unite the mental health community around a common set of principles, including fully implementing the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008; bringing business leaders and government agencies together; working with providers to guarantee equal access to care; ensuring that policymakers have the tools they need to craft better policy; and educating everyone on the benefits of parity and the need to eliminate stigma.   

Another thing that you are heavily involved with is Advocates for Opioid Recovery. What is the mission of this organization, and what is it like working with Newt Gingrich on such an important topic?

Newt and I, along with Van Jones, are founding advisors of Advocates for Opioid Recovery because we want to ensure all of the more than two million Americans living with addiction are able to access the best, most evidence-based treatment available. Study after study has shown that opioid replacement therapy (such as buprenorphine) is incredibly effective at reducing illicit opioid use and preventing accidental drug overdose, which is the leading cause of accidental death in this country. But because of a shortage of physicians who are able to prescribe this treatment, and an arbitrary cap on the number of patients those physicians are able to treat, too many people are dying while they're on the waiting list to get help. There are also significant insurance barriers, including preauthorization requirements, lifetime medication limits and "fail first" program requirements. A recent study commissioned by AOR also found that patient access to and reimbursement for buprenorphine varies widely across states. 

We wouldn't dream of preventing doctors from treating patients with any other chronic disease according to clinical guidelines and best practices, yet that's exactly what's happening for those in need of treatment for addiction. Newt, Van and I recognize that this is totally unacceptable and we know that this issue isn't a partisan one—it impacts all of us. We have the opportunity to solve this crisis with bipartisan support, and we must.

All of us who are in recovery work on ourselves in different ways. What does your recovery look like today, and how do you take care of yourself when you find yourself under stress?

In the beginning, I used opioid replacement therapy myself and it worked for me. Today, I still attend group behavioral therapy on a regular basis. I am a huge proponent of a healthy diet and exercise. I swim or run every day. It’s essential for blowing off steam. My wife Amy and our kids are my true north. Maybe I’m a late bloomer and didn’t meet the love of my life until I was 43 years old, but I’m making up for lost time.

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