“Our illness deserves to be treated the same as any other illness”

Posted by Sappho on July 13th, 2013 filed in Bipolar Disorder, Classes, Lectures, and Conferences


Patrick Kennedy, former U.S. Representative for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District and son of the late Senator Teddy Kennedy, lives with bipolar disorder. At the second day of the DBSA National Conference for 2013, the day that we shared with the International Society for Bipolar Disorder, he gave the closing keynote address. These are my notes on that keynote address.

Patrick Kennedy was elected to Congress at the age of 30, “And you know none of it had anything to do with my last name being Kennedy.” As the youngest member of Congress from the smallest state, he became the sponsor of the Mental Health Parity Act. This, he said, illustrates the power of stigma. Others didn’t want to touch the bill, “So you kind of get me by default.”

“50 years ago, my uncle was the first President to go on TV and say that civil rights was a moral issue.” Who would change skin color and still be willing to counsel patience? Remember Martin Luther King’s “Why We Can’t Wait.”

It goes back to the Golden Rule. Ours is a moral cause, a cause of civil rights, and people add insult to injury when they turn their backs on a biological illness and deny treatment. We’re up against making sure that these illnesses aren’t discriminated against simply because they occur in the brain.

The drivers of stigma are the general public who may be ignorant and the rest of us who know better and don’t speak up. Why else did it take us hundreds of years to treat our brothers and sisters as equals? It’s not that we didn’t know better, but that we didn’t act. It started in the churches, because to deny anyone else those rights is to deny God, because you’re denying them their humanity. There but for the grace of God goes each and every one of us.

The plight of those suffering with mental illness will be better because of our actions today.

We passed the Mental Health Parity Bill in the House. My father was in his final days of a glioblastoma, and Chris Dodd was substituting for him on the Health Committee. The TARP bill and the parity bill still hadn’t passed. So I got my father to get Chris Dodd to put TARP on the parity bill.

We want no more than cancer gets, but we demand that we get no less. If we treated cancer the same, we’d wait for Stage 4 to treat it. If we treated diabetes the same, we’d wait for amputation and blindness.

We knew for ages that Jared Loughner had trouble.

The terms that are used to describe us as patients are dehumanizing and lead to the situation where we wind up in jail rather than hospitals. Why did their illness become so pathologized? Because we waited forever to treat them.

72% of our returning veterans will never go to the Veterans’ Administration. Especially if they got the invisible wounds of war. In that case, we don’t even give them a Purple Heart. We need to kick the door down on behalf of our veterans when they are isolating, and self-medicating because of what they did for us. Don’t we owe our returning heroes that much? And it’s not only our veterans but our family members.

There are 38,000 suicides a year.

This October marks the 50th anniversary of my uncle signing the Community Mental Health Act of 1963.

Who knows what the accurate diagnosis of my aunt Rosemary might have done for her? When my grandfather had her institutionalized, he never saw her for the remaining 25 years of her life, because that’s how it was in those days. But the silver lining was that he devoted himself to research, the Special Olympics, the Healthy Athletes program, and community service care co-located at Special Olympics events.

Make connections, with clinicians, with researchers, and with each other.

My uncle Robert Kennedy, addressing students in Capetown, South Africa, who thought they’d never see the end of apartheid, said, knock down the walls of oppression. We can accomplish more together than we ever could alone.


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