Patrick Kennedy's Common Struggle

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Patrick Kennedy's Common Struggle

By Brian Whitney 11/06/15

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy on the personal and political fight against the stigma of mental illness and addiction.

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It isn’t easy to grow up and to come of age with mental health and addiction problems. Shame and feelings of worthlessness can run rampant, especially if one doesn’t feel accepted as whom they are by their family and the world around them. The pressure can be immense to keep things secret, and to pretend to one's family and the outside world that all is okay.

We need to demand a check-up from the neck up as part of every medical exam, and it has to include all the brain diseases, not just the ones that, so far, have had the loudest advocacy.

In his book A Common Struggle, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the youngest son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, and a member of what is probably both America’s most famous and most tragic family, attempts to help his, and all families make the discussion around mental illness and addiction a more common one. The book talks openly of how Patrick Kennedy felt he was letting his father and family down because of his battle with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He felt the same way about his battle with addiction. Even while he was a Rhode Island Congressman, he went to rehab numerous times, and was involved in a highly publicized single-car accident, which he blamed on prescription medication.

Through his book, and his work with The Kennedy Forum, Patrick Kennedy has made it his life’s work to battle the stigma that comes with mental illness and addiction. He was kind enough to talk to The Fix about his new book.

Many of us who have struggled with addiction and mental health issues felt shame about who we were around our family and peers. You are a member of what is arguably the most famous family in the country. Can you tell us a bit about the pressures of growing up so publicly while battling mental health issues and addiction?

Almost all families hide their experiences with mental illness and addiction—from the outside world, and often from each other. The illnesses are hard enough to treat without having to keep them secret and deal with the fear that others will judge you for having them, rather than sympathize and encourage your treatment like they would any other medical disease. The only real difference that comes from being in a public, political family is that there are people in the media who are paid to dig up your secrets, and when they are revealed, it is sometimes done in the least sympathetic way possible. So that puts even more pressure on you to keep things secret.

I recall being a teenager going to psychotherapy and being afraid to tell my doctor the truth about how I felt and how, say, the disease of addiction was affecting my mother because of fear the therapist might not keep my confidentiality. Then, one day after a therapy session, I was in a bookstore and started looking through the “Kennedy section” and realized that many of the “secrets” I was trying to keep had already been published. While this may sound like a problem only Kennedys have, I actually think that in most families, the struggle with mental illness or addiction is their worst-kept secret. And it’s my goal to help change that.

Part of the reason to write A Common Struggle was to jumpstart the process of people being able to share the truth of their illnesses. The other was to try to bring a truly modern medical perspective—based on today’s evidence-based medicine and not the blaming, discriminatory views of the past—to my medical history, and that of my closest family members, in the hope that it would help others to do the same. Part of my family’s tradition has been to help create dialogue and change by sharing the challenges of our own experiences, starting with the creation of Special Olympics to honor the experience my Aunt Rosemary—and millions of other Americans—had growing up with a developmental disability. That’s the good part of being a public family, you sometimes get to use the public’s fascination for good.

Some who have a mental illness or addiction feel they are taught by those around them and society to feel shame about who they are. There are people in society that feel that if someone has these issues it means a person is weak or morally bankrupt. What sort of hope do you have that your book might help families have a more open dialogue around substance abuse and mental health issues?

I believe more than ever that we have the power to help change the world for people who have mental illnesses and addictions, and for all of those whose lives are touched by these brain diseases—which is to say, all of us. In fact, I have bet my life on it. And while a couple of members of my family have been initially resistant to that openness, the vast majority of my family, and all the people I’ve been hearing from across the country, have been enormously supportive. I think most people believe, as I do, that it is time for diseases of the brain to be taken as seriously as all other medical diseases, and that there is no health without mental health. That said, some of the stigma we face is not only from people who don’t “get” these illnesses, but also from people who have the illnesses and unwittingly divide the community of mental health.

I meet a lot of people who will admit to having an addiction, but would never want to be seen as “crazy,” and others who are very open about having a mental illness but would never want to be seen as an alcoholic or drug addict. Even though the evidence-based treatment for mental illness is medication and supportive therapy together, some can only accept one or the other. People who get treatment mostly from 12-step recovery sometimes are critical of those who get medication-assisted treatment. So, if we want to end stigma and discrimination, we have to remember to end it among ourselves as well.

I have lied in the past to cover up my addiction and I know many other addicts and folks with mental illness that feel that they have to lie to manage others' views of them. How did writing this book and being more open about who you are make you feel about yourself? 

Telling the truth about these illnesses can be simultaneously shocking and freeing. But, as we say in recovery, we are only as sick as our secrets.

But I will note that we do, in this society, sometimes put too much emphasis on the initial “reveal” or “coming out”—and I can tell you from my own experience, there can be another silence just after you tell the truth of your diagnosis, and that silence can be even louder and more difficult to handle. Also, recovery takes time, and gaining the insight into these illnesses that you need to treat them long term also takes time. I first started talking publicly about my illnesses almost 10 years ago, while trying to get people to understand why it was necessary to create new legal protections for people with brain diseases, with a bill that my father and I were able to work together on to pass: the Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act. But that was signed into law in 2008, and we are still waiting for the federal government, and the medical insurance industry, to take more seriously what this law demands of them. It demands an end to medical discrimination in treatment, reimbursement and societal attitudes.



Anything else you would like to share? 

I think it is important that Americans suffering from mental illnesses and addictions, regardless of the type of treatment they employ—or even if they are still not sure they are ready to commit to treatment and accept they have a chronic illness—see the importance of coming together to share some political goals that benefit everyone. For too long, we have focused on tightly disease-specific advocacy and not on fighting more global discrimination against all diseases of the brain, and for more broadly defined and broadly delivered care that is truly integrated into the rest of medicine. This can’t happen just for one brain disease or even one family of diseases. We need to demand a check-up from the neck up as part of every medical exam, and it has to include all the brain diseases, not just the ones that, so far, have had the loudest advocacy. We also need full implementation and enforcement of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, one of our most potent tools for change. In the future, the voice of the common struggle for all mental illnesses and addictions should be the loudest.

Brian Whitney is a pseudonym for an author and ghostwriter, his book Raping the Gods became available in the Spring of 2015. He last wrote about the legacy of John O'Brien and Leaving Las Vegas.

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