Patrick J. Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and a former U.S. Congressman himself, will receive The Luminary Award for his work in mental health legislation and advocacy from Sarasota’s Sunshine from Darkness organization Jan. 14 during its annual symposium and gala (go to sunshinefromdarkness.org for more info). We spoke with Kennedy, 44, on Nov. 22—the date of his uncle John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Q. What sparked your involvement with mental health issues?
A. I’m proud that my family has always been on the side of anti-stigma, whether it was President Kennedy’s call to moral outrage when he spoke of civil rights, or that my Aunt Eunice founded Special Olympics to end the stigma for people with disabilities like my Aunt Rosemary. And I’m proud that I shared sponsorship with my father on the Mental Health Parity Act in 2008. My personal advocacy and political crusade against stigma towards people with mental illness is steeped in the family legacy of public service.
But it also stems from the shame that I felt in needing services in order to take care of my mental wellbeing. I’ve been the beneficiary of mental health services both for depression and addiction. So I had seen the stigma up close in my own personal experience as a consumer. No one else wanted to be the sponsor on that [mental health] bill, and I’m proud to have had it as the crowning achievement of my time as a legislator.
Q. What’s the biggest problem here: the stigma or lack of treatment?
A. It’s like the age-old question of the chicken and the egg. We can’t have the stigma if we expect to get the treatment. Answers in research will help bring enlightenment. Stigma is based on ignorance.
Since leaving Congress [last year] I co-founded the foundation One Mind for Research [1mind4research.org]. It’s an effort to promote the need for greater research into neuroscience. I don’t make any distinction between psychiatric and neurological; mental health disorders are all neurological. I’m not alone in that thought; a lot of leaders in the field understand that.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish?
A. We’re in a crisis right now in funding, both federal and corporate and scientific. One Mind is entering the vacuum to outline a new paradigm for research. Up to now mental health research has been siloed; it’s about autism, or bipolar, or depression. That hampers effectiveness. We need to have a common understanding highway, where we all have our own exits but a united approach, the way the American Cancer Society has been a successful advocate for all types of cancers.
We’re also working with our returning soldiers. The signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is post-traumatic stress syndrome. These wounds of war are looked on as invisible, so our veterans often succumb to them and end up incarcerated. The criminal justice system is the biggest mental health provider in the world. The suicide rate of veterans is also an epidemic and a source of embarrassment to our country.
We’re at a new frontier in mental illness, like my uncle’s new frontier 50 years ago.
Q. On this date, I wanted to ask: What do you think is President Kennedy’s biggest legacy?
A. His historic Inaugural resonates throughout the world, inspiring people to think about service to others and expressing the notion that we all have an obligation to one another. “Ask not” echoes throughout history, across generations and peoples. He stood for something aspirational, and that makes him a standout in history.