Several years ago, the youngest son of Senator Ted Kennedy made a bold decision to leave politics behind to focus on his drug and alcohol addiction and bipolar disorder. Now healthy and sober, he is advocating for changes to mental health care by sharing his own experiences with the world.
One of many
“Many politicians are like most Americans,” Kennedy says. “[They] have mental illness or addiction in their immediate families, but are afraid to reveal it because of the fear and sense of shame around these illnesses.”
For millions of men and women, mental illness is a family matter. More than 4 million American children and adolescents suffer from serious mental challenges that cause significant disruption at home or school, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Half of all mental disorders begin by age 14, and 21 percent of children aged 9 to 17 have some degree of mental or addictive impairment.
A private battle
During his 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving Rhode Island’s First Congressional District, Kennedy fought to end discrimination against mental illness, addiction and other brain diseases. Publicly, he was thriving. But privately, Kennedy was in crisis.
“The irony was that I was suffering from horrendous panic attacks and almost debilitating depression,” he recalls. “And, coupled with my addiction to opiates and binge drinking in order to medicate those feelings, I was in my own mental health crisis.”
Kennedy has acknowledged being treated for cocaine use during his teenage years, and admitted that he abused alcohol and other drugs while he was a student at Providence College. He sought treatment for an OxyContin addiction in 2006.
“I was kind of outed,” he laughs. “A guy that I went to treatment with when I was 17 sold his story of being in treatment with me to the National Enquirer — that was in 1991. And I was a state legislator at the time. The story was on the cover of every check-out counter of every convenience shop in my town. I remember it like it was yesterday; I was horrified to show my face.”
The common struggle
Shame and addiction almost always go hand in hand — and often this shame can be so crippling that it prevents millions from seeking the treatment they need to recover.
“The common struggle is the fear and the shame,” Kennedy explains. “Everybody has various forms of mental illnesses and different types of addictions, and they are relatively different, depending on the level of severity. But the one thing that unites everybody is that we’re all afraid to talk about it.”
“Because we don’t have a mental health system as part of our health care system, people are going without the care that could otherwise save their lives.”
In 2006, Kennedy crashed his automobile into a barricade on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., at 2:45 a.m. He pleaded guilty to a charge of driving under the influence of prescription drugs. But despite a growing list of public controversies, he was re-elected and eventually passed the groundbreaking Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which provides patients who were previously denied care with access to mental health treatment by requiring insurance companies to treat illnesses of the body — like cancer and heart failure — the same as diseases of the brain, such as clinical depression and opioid addiction.
“We as a nation are really suffering,” Kennedy declares. “Because we don’t have a mental health system as part of our health care system, people are going without the care that could otherwise save their lives. And that care would dramatically drop the suicide rate and the overdose rate.”
Many advocates believe that the answer to the opioid epidemic rests in opioid replacement therapies, which include medications that are prescribed to treat addictions to opiates.
“When your brain is saturated with opiates, you’ve developed not only a physical dependence, but you’ve also developed a psychological dependence,” explains Kennedy. “The two make it almost impossible for you to stop cold turkey.”
However, Kennedy urges that replacement medications alone are not completely sufficient. “The treatment needs to be not just medication,” he stresses. “It needs to be coupled with mental health and cognitive behavioral therapy.”
Under a new administration, the future of mental health coverage is uncertain. Kennedy recently partnered with politicians Newt Gingrich and Van Jones to expand government funding for mental health and addiction. The group is utilizing the hashtag #LetsTrumpAddiction and leveraging social media as a platform to effect change.
Adds Kennedy, “The system won’t respond unless we demand that response.”