Patrick Kennedy: A One On One Conversation About Addiction And Mental Illness

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Mental illness is a growing problem in our country. It's estimated one in four of us suffers from some form of mental illness.

Long thought of as a weakness or flaw, that stigma led many people to self-medicate or keep it a family secret.

No one knows better than former congressman Patrick Kennedy, who just released a book detailing his lifelong battle with bi-polar disorder and addiction. He also talks about other mental health issues in his family, speaking openly about his late father, Senator Edward Kennedy, and his mother, Joan.

In his recently released book, "A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction," Kennedy explains that it's a common struggle because these are diseases that know no boundaries, striking families regardless of race, gender or economics.

Patrick Kennedy says he started drinking when he was about 13 years old, and his addiction came to a head five years ago when he smashed into a police barricade in Washington, D.C., as a congressman. "I spent a better part of my life self-medicating because I have a disease called addiction and alcoholism, and it's a real illness."

After that accident, Patrick admitted publicly that he was an addict and checked into Mayo Clinic for rehab. He says his father, Ted, was livid. He had broken the Kennedy code of keeping things in the family.

Patrick also describes growing up in a home where his mother, Joan, was often in a fog, and his dad would respond to her drinking by saying, "Here she goes again."

Kennedy says, in reality, both of his parents were alcoholics. His mother's alcoholism was inherited from her mother, and his father's alcoholism was likely influenced by living through the assassinations of his two brothers and then the accident at Chappaquiddick that took a young staffer's life.

"There's no question that all that my father experienced... you just imagine the unimaginable, the incomprehensible... Now, in his generation, you wouldn't have said that's post-traumatic stress because no one understood post-traumatic stress. If that happened today, the whole mental health world would have said, "Hey, you need to get treated for post-traumatic stress like our veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. And as a result, he self-medicated as opposed to having received the kind of modern day version of what treatment for post-traumatic stress would look like."

Patrick has made many appearances on national news program in the last week, and he admits the book has caused a rift in his family. His brother, Teddy, was quoted as saying he was heartbroken. I asked him, "Do you stand by what you have written in the book?" With no hesitation Kennedy responded, "Absolutely stand by what I have written, it's truthful, it's my recollection, and frankly the essence of this is, none of us can talk about these issues because we're so ashamed."

That shame is what Patrick wants removed for his children and our next generation of kids, saying, "I want a checkup from the neck up in every physician's visit from our pediatrician to our geriatricians."

He adds that senior citizens need their depression, anxiety and substance abuse measured because those numbers are skyrocketing.

Kennedy authored the landmark Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act in Congress in 2008 alongside his father. That legislation, along with President Obama's Affordable Care Act, which prohibits denial because of preexisting conditions, it is illegal to cover mental illness any differently than other diseases.

"This is against the law, and they are continuing to break the law," Kennedy says. "You know why: because we're so silent and so shamed by our illness we never bother to speak up and say, you can't do it anymore."

But Kennedy can, and he will, through The Kennedy Forum. It's a political action committee and a program that will monitor how insurance companies make their decisions about coverage. Kennedy plans to be the country's watchdog.

"If you do it for cancer and diabetes, you've got to do the same for addiction and mental health. That's the law," he states.

I also asked him about the debate over mental health and gun control, a topic that has been the subject of discussion again in the aftermath of the recent Oregon college shooting. To Kennedy, it's a false dichotomy. "Obviously I would like to see both treated, but being realistic, let's do what we can, and I think there is bipartisan support in this country to get a comprehensive mental health bill that will address early intervention, just like we would treat any other illness. If we do that, guarantee we're going to reduce the numbers of tragedies and suicide, of overdose and the tragedies like you saw at Umpqua College."

Kennedy believes the next big frontier in medicine is the brain. "It's the brain. You cannot get to autism, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, any of that without understanding the whole brain."

"I hope that my children's generation... it's not going to be any big deal. If someone is having trouble, you get them right into treatment," he says.

Patrick Kennedy has been sober for five years now, and he and his wife Amy are expecting their fourth child in the coming months.

Kennedy credits his sobriety to the love of his wife and children, the support he gets from his peers, his belief in a God of his understanding, and his visits to many 12 step meetings, even when he is on the road.

If you would like to learn more about Kennedy, his book, his foundation and his work on brain health and research, click the following links:

The Kennedy Forum:

State Parity Reports:

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Contact the Michiana Chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous at (574) 234-707 or online at

Our time with Kennedy was limited because he was in town for the Oaklawn luncheon, but we were able to speak about a number of important topics. The full interview video is linked to this story.

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